Plainly stated, Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that manifests in the destruction of portions of the brain and typically presents in people over 65. However, the early onset form of AD can appear as early as one’s 40s or 50s. It should be noted that AD is not a normal part of the aging process. The disease progresses through several stages of increasing severity of cognitive decline eventually resulting in complete disability and ultimately death.
The neurodegenerative effects (brain wasting) of AD are theorized to be the result of the accumulation of plaques and Tau tangles in the brain. Both plaques (Amyloid) and Tau tangles are proteins present within the brain. Amyloid plaques and Tau abnormalities have been observed in images and autopsies of the brains of AD patients, whether they are the direct cause of AD remains in debate within the medical community.
While the cause of AD is not known, its effects and stages of progression are abundantly clear. There are seven stages of AD beginning with no outward symptoms and then progressing through ever worsening stages of memory loss and the inability to function normally. The early stages where symptoms are not present or very mild are when opportunities to intervene to slow the progression of the disease are missed. Some forgetfulness is a very normal part of aging, but it should still raise concern especially if it’s accompanied by mood changes such as depression or irritability. Advance warning can ease things for both AD patients as well as those tasked with providing care. Forewarned is indeed forearmed!
The preceding discussion of diagnosing AD during the early stages of the disease underscores the challenges in effective diagnostic methods. Diagnosing AD begins with neuropsychological and cognitive evaluations which look for the typical signs of the disease. Family history is also considered, but the majority of the testing for AD is used to eliminate other causes of dementia. This includes brain imagining, blood tests, and other labs to rule out cognitive impairment due to thyroid and metabolic conditions as well as diseases such as syphilis. Early detection of these other conditions increases the chances of successfully treating them. Ruling out other causes of dementia helps in the differential diagnosis of AD and beginning drug and non-drug therapies as early as possible in the treatment of AD.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment of AD is currently focused on management across three modalities: pharmaceutical, psychosocial, and care provided by family and/or professional caregivers. Please see our pages on Alzheimer’s Treatment Options for more information.
The cost of AD is immense in both financial terms and the social and emotional toll is exacts on patients and their families. As the world experiences a “population explosion” in elderly persons, the more attention dementia, and in particular AD, will receive. We can only hope that through passionate and aggressive medical research, that Alzheimer’s disease will one day reap similar treatment advancements as we’re now experiencing for cancer and heart disease.