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What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by symptoms affecting cognitive function, such as impairment of memory, reasoning, language, and perception. This illness is the leading cause of dementia in the United States. The likelihood of developing the disease increases drastically after the age of 70 and affects roughly one half of the population over the age of 85. The cause of Alzheimer's disease remains unknown; however, it is suspected that genetics may play a role in its development. Living with Alzheimer's disease impacts an individual's ability to function in everyday life. Treatment options are available if you or a loved one suffers from the disease.

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's is a slowly progressive disease of the brain that manifests varying symptoms, most notably dementia. Alzheimer's disease affects many elderly people; however, it is not something that inevitably happens later in life. Many people live well into their 90s and never develop the disease.

What Causes Alzheimer's Disease?

The cause of Alzheimer's disease is currently unknown. Many scientific experts have developed the amyloid cascade hypothesis, which attributes an early onset of the disease to an accumulation of a specific protein in the brain called beta-amyloid. The amyloid cascade hypothesis comes from a study of early-onset inherited Alzheimer's disease. Researchers have discovered mutations in roughly half of the patients diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. In all of these patients, the mutations led to excess production of the beta-amyloid protein. Many scientists believe there is too little removal of the protein rather than too much production. In any case, the majority of the research conducted on treating Alzheimer's disease focuses on ways of decreasing the amount of the beta-amyloid protein in the brain.

Who's at Risk for Developing Alzheimer's Disease?

The main risk for developing Alzheimer's disease revolves around increased age. As an individual ages, the tendency to develop the disease increases. Unless research emerges that will decrease the likelihood of developing the disease, the number of individuals with Alzheimer's disease will climb to 13.8 million by 2050. Researchers have also discovered a genetic link to the development of Alzheimer's, though less than five percent of people develop the disease by their mid-40s to late 50s due to inherited genetic mutations. In addition, the children of a patient with early-onset Alzheimer's disease will have a 50 percent risk of developing the disease themselves.

What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease?

The onset of Alzheimer's disease is gradual and slowly progressive. The first sign of the disease involves memory loss. Many family members of the patients recognize this during the initial stage of the disease. When memory loss and other cognitive disturbances arise on a consistent basis, then family members start to question if the sufferer has the disease. As the disease progresses, sufferers may develop difficulty forming abstract thoughts and performing other intellectual tasks. For example, an Alzheimer's patient may find trouble calculating future payments while working on bills or understanding the plot in a novel. Mild personality changes may also occur during the early stages of the illness. Further behavioral disturbances may manifest in the form of irritability and argumentativeness. They may also have trouble keeping up their personal appearance. In the later phases of the disorder, patients may experience confusion and disorientation about the month or year they live in. They may not coherently describe where they live or place a name to a location they have visited. Eventually, Alzheimer's patients may wander, fail to engage in conversation, and have erratic moods. In the final stages, patients may be totally incapable of caring for themselves, which may result in death.

What Are the Different Treatment Options for Alzheimer's Disease?

Patients can manage the development of their disease by taking medication. There are currently two different classes of pharmaceuticals approved by the FDA for treating Alzheimer's disease. Neither class of drugs has been proven to slow the progress of the disease; however, they have been effective in alleviating symptoms.