What Is Alzheimer’s? Five Frequently Asked Questions

May 31st, 2016

Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 47 million people worldwide, and that number continues to grow. Experts estimate 76 million people will suffer from the degenerative cognitive disease by 2030[1]. Recognizing the ever-pressing need for research, the Alzheimer’s Association has organized Alzheimer’s Awareness Month this June to bring attention to this fatal disease. To bolster their efforts, we’ve answered five frequently asked questions about the disease below. We’ll continue blogging all month about Alzheimer’s, so check back next week for more.

What causes Alzheimer’s?

More research is necessary to thoroughly understand the causes of Alzheimer’s. However, it’s generally accepted that the late-onset form of the disease (by far the most prevalent) develops slowly over decades based on a variety of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Having a close relative with the disease increases a person’s chance of getting it, but by no means guarantees it.[2] As for environmental and lifestyle variables, increasing age is the most significant risk factor, but high blood pressure and diabetes can also play a role.[3]

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is most commonly characterized by mental confusion and forgetfulness, but these symptoms also accompany normal aging. What’s the difference? The Alzheimer’s Association lists ten typical signs of Alzheimer’s, including memory loss that disrupts daily life, challenges in planning or solving problems, and difficulty completing familiar tasks[4] They also differentiate these symptoms from the milder signs of normal cognitive decline. For instance, while a normal older adult might occasionally struggle to balance their checkbook or forget an important name or date and then remember it later, these difficulties are more persistent for an Alzheimer’s sufferer.[5]

What’s the typical Alzheimer’s prognosis?

For people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the exact timeline, symptoms, and severity of their disease can vary.[6] However, the trajectory of the disease tends to flow through seven distinct phases, originally outlined by Dr. Barry Reisberg of New York University.[7] The arc generally begins with symptoms similar to those of normal aging,[8] proceeds through gradually worsening stages that can include difficulty with simple arithmetic and forgetting personal details,[9] and ends with severe decline typified by the inability to swallow.

Is there a cure for Alzheimer’s?

There’s no known cure for Alzheimer’s, only treatments that can ease symptoms.[10] The FDA has approved two types of medications (cholinesterase inhibitors, such as Aricept, Exelon, and Razadyne, and memantine, found in Namenda) that diminish mental confusion, memory loss, and other cognitive symptoms, but these do not reverse the underlying causes.[11] Likewise, many tout alternative supplements—gingko biloba and coenzyme Q10 among them—but no clinical trials have been done to confirm these. Thus, the need for more rigorous research is ever-pressing.

How can I prevent Alzheimer’s?

As with many degenerative illnesses, a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, balanced diet, and sound sleep habits, may help prevent Alzheimer’s. Perhaps most notable is the correlation between high blood pressure and high cholesterol and the incidence of the disease. Doctors recommend getting these numbers under control, not only for Alzheimer’s prevention but for general good health.[12]

[1] http://alz.org/abam/?_ga=1.84317712.865058079.1393898811#getTheFacts

[2] https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/testing-alzheimers-disease-guidelines/ 7th graf

[3] http://nihseniorhealth.gov/alzheimersdisease/faq/faq8.html 2nd graf

[4] http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp#typical numbers 1, 2, 3 on list

[5] http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp#typical numbers 1 and 2 on list

[6] http://www.alzheimers.net/stages-of-alzheimers-disease/ graf 1

[7] http://www.alzheimers.net/stages-of-alzheimers-disease/ graf 2

[8] http://www.alzheimers.net/stages-of-alzheimers-disease/ stage 2

[9] http://www.alzheimers.net/stages-of-alzheimers-disease/ stages 4

[10] http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_treatments.asp

[11] http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_standard_prescriptions.asp grafs 1 and 2

[12] http://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia/alzheimers-and-dementia-prevention.htm