Alzheimer's Disease Frequently Asked Questions

What is Dementia?

Dementia is a gradual and progressive loss of memory, thinking and reasoning skills, as well as physical function. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia.

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder that gradually destroys a person's memory, ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate, and carry out daily activities. As the disease progresses, individuals may develop changes in personality and behavior and become anxious, suspicious or agitated. They also may suffer from delusions or hallucinations.

Who is Affected by Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease primarily affects individuals over age 65. One in 10 people over age 65 and nearly half of all individuals who reach the age of 85 will develop Alzheimer's disease. Because of the nature of the disease, Alzheimer's has a tremendous impact not only on those diagnosed with it, but also greatly affects their families and caregivers.

How Widespread is Alzheimer's Disease?

An estimated 4.5 million American adults have Alzheimer's disease and it is the fourth leading cause of death in adults. In New York State, more than 330,000 residents have Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. Given the increase in the elderly population, especially the proportion of the population over 80 years of age, it is anticipated that the number of individuals with Alzheimer's disease will increase dramatically, perhaps to as many as 16 million nationally by 2050.

What Causes Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is caused by abnormalities that disrupt the ability of nerve cells in the brain to communicate with each other. While there is no single event that triggers the disease, there seem to be a number of factors that play a role in its development. There are certain genetic, non-genetic and biologic factors that increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Studies have begun to identify relationships between exercise, dietary factors, inflammation, and cardiovascular conditions and brain health, to name a few.

Does My Family History Increase My Risk for Alzheimer's Disease?

There are two types of Alzheimer's disease. A rare form, called familial Alzheimer's disease, occurs in individuals before age 65 and sometimes as early as the 30s and 40s. It has been identified in only a few hundred families worldwide and is inherited. This form of the disease is considered a single gene disorder. The second type of Alzheimer's disease, late-onset Alzheimer's disease, is the most common form. Late onset Alzheimer's disease occurs after age 65, primarily in people in their 70s and 80s. A family history of Alzheimer's disease is known to increase risk in this type as well. Although genes are known to play a role in the late-onset type, several genes probably interact with as yet unknown environmental factors to cause Alzheimer's disease.

What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease?

Symptoms vary widely; however, the first sign of the disease is most often forgetfulness that begins to affect an individual's daily routine. Other warning signs include: difficulty performing familiar tasks like cooking; problems with language; disorientation to time and place; poor or decreased judgment, misplacing things; and changes in mood or behavior. There also can be changes in personality and loss of initiative, such as no longer being interested in previous hobbies or activities. Another common symptom is reduced capacity to grasp ideas that do not relate to an individual's personal experiences.

Can Alzheimer's Disease be Prevented?

While scientists are uncertain what causes Alzheimer's disease, some preliminary research suggests that general strategies for healthy aging reduce the risk of developing it. Some studies support the value of lifelong learning and engaging in activities that are mentally stimulating. There is clinical evidence that suggests physical and mental function improves with aerobic fitness. Some healthful actions include lowering cholesterol levels, controlling blood pressure, weight and diabetes, and exercising the body and mind.

How is Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosed?

Early diagnosis can improve the quality of life and may help resolve anxiety related to wondering what is wrong when the disease begins to interfere with an individual's daily life. However, with the exception of an autopsy after death, no single test can determine whether an individual has Alzheimer's disease. Diagnosis involves a complete physical and neurological examination, including laboratory tests, and a psychiatric assessment. The tests take more than one day and are usually performed on an outpatient basis. In addition to the individual for whom the diagnosis is being made, other family members may be interviewed in order to gather information about the patient's behavior.

How Is Alzheimer's Disease Treated?

There are approved drugs that help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Some drugs may temporarily delay memory decline in some individuals and other drugs help treat the emotional and behavioral symptoms. Additionally, there may be individualized mental health interventions that go beyond drugs or using restraints to treat aggression associated with Alzheimer's disease. Clinical trials that compare a potential new strategy with a standard one or with a placebo may be yet another approach to treatment.

Is There A Cure?

While scientists are continually seeking new treatments for Alzheimer's disease, there currently is no cure available for this degenerative condition.