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Alzheimer's Disease

Rudolph C. Hatfield, PhD., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

image by Maureen Didde (lic) Dementia is a general term that describes a change in someone's thinking processes result from some specific medical condition or disease. There are numerous types of dementia. Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most frequent type of dementia.

Alzheimer's disease and other dementias impose a significant financial burden on US families. According to Alzheimer's Disease International in 2016, there were nearly 44 million people in the world with Alzheimer's or a related dementia, and only 1-in-4 people living with Alzheimer's have been diagnosed with the disorder. The global cost of Alzheimer's and dementia care is estimated to be $605 billion.

At one time it was believed that even severe memory loss and the loss of other mental abilities were a part of "senility", which was part of normal aging. However, this belief is no longer held to be true. While there are some mild changes in a person's memory and other mental abilities that happen as they get older, the changes that happen with Alzheimer's disease are not a part of normal aging.

There are several differences between the changes that occur with normal aging and those that occur in people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease:

Memory Changes: Changes in memory are the main features that happen in people with Alzheimer's disease. There is a slight decline in any person's ability to remember information as they get older. However, the memory changes that happen in people who have Alzheimer's disease are severe. Initially, they have trouble recalling new information. Then as the disease progresses even old memories such as being able to recognize friends and relatives are often difficult to recall. At first, Alzheimer's disease disrupts the areas of the brain that are involved in a person's ability to learn and store new information. Even the use of memory aids such as lists, and reminders may not help them. As the disease progresses people may develop severe forgetfulness that affects all areas of memory. This could include their ability to recognize family members, recall events in their past, and to perform previously well-learned tasks such as tying their shoes, dressing, bathing, etc.

Changes in Language Abilities: In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, people may develop problems with language comprehension. This means that they have trouble understanding spoken words and sentences. This often first appears as difficulty following instructions from others. As the disease progresses people may have difficulty understanding basic sentences. They may even have difficulty expressing themselves. This happens especially with recognizing and naming familiar objects.

Problem-solving: Another area that is severely affected in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease is the person's ability to solve problems and make decisions. This difficulty becomes worse as the disease advances. At first, the person may have trouble solving problems such as calculating how much they owe at the grocery store or paying their bills. Later, even simple decisions such as how to open a can of soup can become an issue.

Self-care and Other Areas: As the disease continues to get worse the mental changes that happen in the person may cause them to have issues caring for themselves. This might include remembering to bathe, how to dress themselves, and take care of their basic needs. Other mental abilities can also be affected. This could include:

  • being able to visualize and understand how objects are positioned in one's environment (known as spatial relations)
  • generating new thoughts
  • physical functioning problems such as their reaction time
  • difficulties with motor coordination (body movements).

There are different types of Alzheimer's disease. For instance, one type called Familial Alzheimer's disease is believed to be primarily genetic in nature and effects people in the same family at a very early age. In most cases Alzheimer's disease is a slowly progressing condition, but this Familial Alzheimer's disease progresses rapidly.

Most individuals develop Alzheimer's disease in their senior years (after the age of 65). However, the Early Onset Type of Alzheimer's disease may appear much earlier (even in people who are 40 or 50 years of age).

Although researchers and doctors continue to work on treatments for Alzheimer's disease, there is no cure for any form of Alzheimer's disease at the current time. Medications may slow down the disease, but cannot cure the person.


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