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Alzheimer's Disease

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D E S C R I P T I O N

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder that results in dementia - impaired memory, thinking and reasoning. It affects approximately 4 million people in the United States and is the fourth leading cause of death among adults. The number of people with Alzheimer's disease is expected to grow significantly over the next 50 years as the population ages.

There is no test for Alzheimer's disease. Diagnosis is based on three clinical features:

1. Insidious onset of symptoms.

2. Dementia.

3. Exclusion of all other specific causes of dementia.

The diagnosis, which is correct 80 percent to 90 percent of the time, can be confirmed only with identification of specific brain abnormalities at autopsy.


R I S K

The primary risk factor for Alzheimer's disease is old age. The rates of the disease increase markedly with advancing age. Research indicates that 5 to 10 percent of the population age 65 and older has Alzheimer's disease. The rate increases to nearly 50 percent for those age 85 and older. However, the disease is being found in people in their 40s and 50s with increasing frequency. Men and women are affected almost equally.

A family history of Alzheimer's disease may be a risk factor for the disease, though more research needs to be done in this area. The probability is low that a close relative of an individual with Alzheimer's disease will also develop it. In most cases, such an individual's risk is only slightly higher than that of someone in the general population. However, scientists are working to identify specific mutations that may help to identify people who have a greater risk of developing the disease.


S Y M P T O M S

The primary manifestation of Alzheimer's disease is progressive loss of memory and language. Symptoms include gradual memory loss, lessened ability to perform routine tasks, disorientation, difficulty in learning, loss of language skills, impairment of judgment and planning, and personality changes. Depression, severe uneasiness, and paranoia or delusions may accompany or result from the disease.

The onset of Alzheimer's disease is usually slow and gradual, and the rate of progression varies. The time from the onset of symptoms until death ranges from three years to 20 years; the average is eight years.


T R E A T M E N T

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. However, treatments are available to alleviate some of the symptoms.

Physical exercise, social activity and proper nutrition are all important. A calm, safe and well-structured environment may help a person with Alzheimer's disease to continue functioning.

Medication helps lessen symptoms such as agitation and anxiety and can improve sleep and participation in activities. There are two FDA-approved drugs specifically for Alzheimer's disease - tacrine (also known as Cognex) and donepezil hydrochloride (also known as Aricept). New medications for improving cognitive performance and treating related symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are being tested.


P R E V E N T I O N

Research into the cause, cure and prevention of Alzheimer's disease is ongoing, but findings indicate that estrogen replacement and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Antioxidants, such as vitamin E and ginkgo biloba, are also being evaluated. However, none of these therapies is currently recommended to prevent or to treat Alzheimer's disease.

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