What is Alzheimer's disease? Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurological disorder that attacks the brain and results in cognitive problems such as memory loss, impaired thinking and strange behavior. Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia and the fourth leading cause of death in adults after heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Dr. Alois Alzheimer first described the disease in 1906. Researchers have now developed a deeper understanding of the potential cause of the disease and associated treatment.

Approximately 4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease. A national survey conducted in 1993 indicates that approximately 19 million Americans say they have a family member with Alzheimer's and 37 million know someone with the disease.

Alzheimer's disease does not involve memory loss alone. People with Alzheimer's disease experience a decline in cognitive abilities, such as thinking, understanding and changes in behavior. The Alzheimer's Association has developed a list of 10 warning signs that include common symptoms of the disease, some of which also apply to other dementias:

  • Memory loss that affects job skills
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems with language
  • Disorientation to time and place
  • Poor or decreased judgement
  • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Misplacing things
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Changes in personality
  • Loss of initiative

If you are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, it's important to know the difference between cognitive and behavioral symptoms in order to seek the appropriate treatment. The following are some common symptoms grouped by category:

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Memory Loss
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Problems with reasoning and thinking

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Delusions
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Insomnia
  • Wandering

Early and careful evaluation is important because many conditions can cause dementia, some of which are treatable or may be reversible. Potentially reversible conditions include depression, adverse drug reactions, metabolic changes and nutritional deficiencies.

There is no single clinical test that can be used to identify Alzheimer's disease. A comprehensive patient evaluation includes a complete health history, physical examination, neurological and mental status assessments and other tests, including analysis of blood and urine, electrocardiogram and an imaging exam such as CT or MRI. Although this type of evaluation may provide a diagnosis of possible or probable Alzheimer's disease, confirmation requires examination of brain tissue at autopsy.

Although there is not yet a cure for Alzheimer's disease, medical and social management of the disease can ease the burdens on the patient and his or her caregiver and family. To date there are three FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease: tacrine (Cognex®), donepezil (Aricept®) and rivastigmine (Exelon®). Several others are undergoing clinical trials. Advising a patient and his or her caregiver to initiate health-care directives and decisions while the patient still has the capacity to do so can ease the burden for the family as the disease progresses.

For more information, visit websites for the Alzheimer's Association, the Tarrant County Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association or the Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center.

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