What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2023

Dementia is a more general term than Alzheimer's disease. Dementia describes symptoms of memory impairment or cognitive decline severe enough to affect activities of daily living.1

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. Around 5.8 million people in the United States were living with Alzheimer’s in 2020.2

Alzheimer’s disease is progressive. This means that symptoms are mild at first, then increase over years.2

What happens to the brain in Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease destroys cells in the brain, called neurons, and their connections. Initially it mostly targets neurons in the memory areas of the brain. This is what causes the earliest symptoms, such as confusion and difficulty remembering things.1,3

Beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Both of these are collections of harmful protein in and around the cells in the brain. They block communication between neurons and between brain areas. Over time, this breakdown in communication causes issues with:1,3

  • Memory
  • Judgment and planning
  • Language
  • Motor (movement) skills

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

The most common symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering new information. But there are other symptoms that develop throughout disease progression, including:1

  • Memory problems and forgetfulness
  • Issues with problem-solving and judgment
  • Confusion or getting lost
  • Emotional issues or personality changes
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Motor issues

Some of these symptoms also show up in other types of dementia. Early diagnosis is critical for care. It helps you set a plan with your family and care team and make financial or personal decisions. It can also help with treatment outcomes.1,2

Risk factors

The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age. While aging does not cause Alzheimer’s, the majority of people who have Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. Genetics and family history can also play a role. They are particularly important in Alzheimer’s that is diagnosed earlier than 65 (early-onset).1,2

Alzheimer’s disease affects women slightly more than men. It is also slightly more prevalent in Black people and Hispanic people.1,2

Other risk factors for Alzheimer’s include:1,2

  • Poor heart health, including high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • An inactive lifestyle
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Too high or too low body weight
  • Issues with your metabolism (certain chemical processes in your body)

There are preventive steps you can take to minimize the impact of some of these risk factors. Taking care of your mental and physical health has been shown to help delay or slow progression of Alzheimer’s. Actions that can help include:2,4

  • Doing physical and mental exercises
  • Keeping a healthy sleep schedule
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Connecting socially with other people

Treatment

In terms of treatment, there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s. However, there are several drugs available to help address symptoms.2

These drugs can affect many different parts of the disease. Some drugs help people to maintain brain health for longer. Some manage behavioral symptoms. Still others can help slow or delay symptoms.1,2

Many drugs are actively in development for Alzheimer’s. And more research is coming out every day. If you are experiencing symptoms of cognitive decline, talk to your doctor about getting tested for dementia.3

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