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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Alzheimer's Disease

Last updated: September 2021

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and makes up 60-80 percent of dementia diagnoses.1,2 Whether you’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, or know someone who has, here’s a guide to some of the most frequently asked questions about the disease.

What is Alzheimer's?
How common is Alzheimer's?
How does Alzheimer's develop?
What causes Alzheimer's?
What are common symptoms of Alzheimer's?
How is Alzheimer's diagnosed?
How is Alzheimer's treated? Is there a cure?

What is Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive and irreversible brain disease in which a person's memory and cognition declines slowly. Eventually, the disease progresses to the point where it interferes with even the most basic functions of daily living like eating, talking, and movement.

How common is Alzheimer's?

Approximately 5.5 million Americans over the age of 65 are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. There are also more than 200,000 individuals in the United States that are younger than 65 and living with the disease.1,2

This means that nearly 1 in 10 individuals 65 and older has Alzheimer’s disease.3 The percentage of those with Alzheimer’s also increases with age: of those diagnosed, 81 percent are 75 years old or older.3

How does Alzheimer's develop?

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological disease, which means it affects the brain. The disease causes damage to large areas of the brain and impairs neuronal communication, metabolism, and cell repair.4 It usually originates in the areas of the brain responsible for memory, then, later on, affects areas involved in language, emotional processing, reasoning, executive function, and social behavior. As the disease progresses and destroys more and more neurons, basic abilities to live and function independently are affected.

What causes Alzheimer's disease?

For the majority of people, there is no one known definitive cause of Alzheimer’s disease. There are various risk factors that may influence the development of the disease. Usually, it is thought to be a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.5

There are some people with Alzheimer’s disease that have a type called early-onset familial Alzheimer’s disease.5 This is often caused by an inherited change in one of three genes. Less than 1 percent of Alzheimer’s disease is caused by mutations in these genes. These genes are:

  1. APP which makes a protein called amyloid precursor protein
  2. PSEN1, which encodes for a protein called Presenilin 1
  3. PSEN2, which encodes for a protein called Presenilin 2.

What are common symptoms of Alzheimer's?

Early stage symptoms of Alzheimer's include:6

  • having trouble finding the right word for something
  • not being able to remember someone’s name
  • having difficulties with work tasks
  • forgeting information you just read
  • misplacing valuable objects
  • increasing difficulty with planning or organizing

Moderate stage symptoms of Alzheimer's include:6,7

  • having more difficulty with tasks and cognition
  • mood changes
  • trouble choosing appropriate clothing for the season
  • difficulty swallowing or eating
  • confusion about what day it is or where you are
  • sleep difficulties or disturbances
  • incontinence
  • the inability to learn new information
  • trouble recognizing family/friends
  • personality or behavioral changes like hand wringing or agitation
  • trouble with language
  • increased risk of wandering.

Severe stage symptoms of Alzheimer's include:6,7

  • inability to communicate
  • weight loss
  • loss of bladder and bowel control
  • significant vulnerability to infections
  • loss of ability to sit or walk
  • seizures
  • increased sleeping.

How is Alzheimer's disease diagnosed?

There are multiple things that can be done to help rule out other possible causes of the reported symptoms. Healthcare professionals often take a thorough medical history exam, conduct neurological and mental status tests, conduct certain lab and image tests, and may even conduct genetic tests. By gathering information from these exams and tests, healthcare professionals are able to differentiate between possible Alzheimer’s disease and probable Alzheimer’s disease.8

However, a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can only be done post-mortem, or after death.9 This is because the brain tissue needs to be examined upon autopsy for the changes the disease causes.

How are symptoms of Alzheimer's treated?

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple components to it, and the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is also multi-faceted. There is no cure for the disease. The goal of treatment is to help people maintain their cognitive functioning, manage behavioral symptoms, and alleviate some of the symptoms that may be most bothersome and impairing quality of life.10

Treatment often depends on the stage of Alzheimer’s someone is in and the accompanying symptoms. Since symptoms can change over time, as well as vary in severity, treatment plans may shift or remain a fluid work-in-progress. This is why it’s helpful for people with Alzheimer’s disease to have attuned caregivers and see the doctor regularly for check-ups. Treatment can include medications for memory, behavior, or mood; and non-drug treatments for behavior.

Have more specific questions about Alzheimer's disease? Feel free to ask in our Q&A.

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