What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

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I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man;
Yet, I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me.
(William Shakespeare (1605) King Lear, Act IV, Scene 7)

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative and always fatal disease that attacks the brain. It gradually strips a person of mental and physical capabilities and renders them totally incapable of caring for themselves. Alzheimer’s disease can affect anyone. At present, there are an estimated 400,000 Floridians and approximately 4.8 million Americans who have been given an Alzheimer’s or a related dementia diagnosis.

Alzheimer’s disease has a gradual onset. The memory losses are a result of the death of brain cells and connectors between these brain cells. Symptoms include difficulty with memory, confusion, interference with routine work and social activities, language usage, impaired judgment, misplacing objects, mood swings and disorientation with regard to place and time. Every Alzheimer’s patient exhibits universal symptoms, yet each patient has an individual pattern. Eventually, this disease process leaves patients with a total loss of ability to care for themselves. The course of Alzheimer’s can run from 2-25 years, with the average being four to eight years.

It is important to get a proper medical diagnosis, as there are many other identified forms of dementia, including: tumors, head injuries, alcoholism, vascular disease, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Pick’s, Down’s syndrome, AIDS, Creutzfeldt-Jacob, encephalitis, infections, syphilis, hydrocephalus, drug/medication use/abuse, depression, B-12 deficiency, hypo or hyperglycemia, anemia, thyroid disorder, blood clots in brain, and liver/kidney failure. Some of these types of dementia are irreversible and can cause multiple changes in personality while others may be reversed and/or treated with medical management. When a diagnosis of irreversible dementia has been made, then the family caregivers will have the peace of mind of knowing that everything possible has been done for the patient. The evaluation will also establish a disease base line from which to make important present and future health and legal care decisions.

The medical evaluation can include a detailed medical history, mental status test, neuro-psychological tests, brain scan (MRI or CT), physical exam, laboratory tests, neurological exam and psychiatric exam. The results will be evaluated and the family will be given the best possible summary. If the diagnosis is probable Alzheimer’s, then this diagnosis will have an accuracy rate of about 90%. A definite Alzheimer’s diagnosis can only be confirmed to 100% when a brain autopsy has been performed after the patient’s death. This kind of information is vital to help research efforts for our future generations. For information about Memory Disorder Clinics and the Florida Brain Bank, see Clinical Evaluation and Research.

It is very rare to show signs of dementia before age 40, however the youngest person ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s was 27 years of age. Alzheimer’s and Down’s Syndrome are both on chromosome 21, and patients who have Down’s Syndrome invariably develop Alzheimer’s if they live long enough. Other dementia and disease-like symptoms can overlap with Alzheimer’s, so a patient may be diagnosed with different forms of illnesses at the same time.

When a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is given, there is usually a second victim, the caregiver. The ongoing physical, emotional, legal and social costs are immeasurable. The caregiver has to be constantly concerned with ongoing and ever changing needs. The demands from these challenges can be overwhelming. Caregiver stress and burnout can be alleviated through support groups, day care and other community programs aimed at “caring for the caregiver”. By taking advantage of the help available, you will be able to share similar experiences, form new networks of support and care for your own needs.

The National Alzheimer’s Association regularly releases reports on major scientific breakthroughs. These reports are compiled by the Medical and Scientific Advisory Board and provide families with accurate information. Great strides are being made in Alzheimer’s research projects, and while there is currently no cure, the situation is not hopeless. Slowing the progression of the disease through medications and future breakthroughs will give us greater results for the remedy and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association, Gulf Coast Chapter also keeps up with research. Here are their web sites:

For additional information, you may want to look through the table of contents for several sections of our caregiver web site. Many articles, even if written for all caregivers or those at a certain stage of caregiving, offer information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.

You may also find these resources on our web site helpful:

  • Search for Community Resources (online database of private businesses and government-funded program serving seniors and caregivers in Pinellas and Pasco County, Florida, listed with The  Helpline of the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Inc.)