Alzheimer's Basics

Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging. The greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimer's are 65 and older. Alzheimer's has no current cure, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continues. 

Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability that seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily life activities. Dementia describes a group of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, reasoning or other thinking skills. Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It is caused by damage to brain cells that affect their ability to communicate, which can affect thinking, behavior and feelings. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of dementia cases.

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that is caused by complex brain changes following cell damage. Alzheimer's causes a slow decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. People with Alzheimer’s gradually lose the ability to care for themselves and to remain independent. Though the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s is increasing age, the disease is not a normal part of aging.

One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in the early stage, is forgetting recently learned information. As Alzheimer's advances through the brain it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory loss and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking. Review the ten (10) warning signs and symptoms here.

Alzheimer’s disease typically progresses slowly in three general stages: early, middle and late (sometimes referred to as mild, moderate and severe in a medical context). Since Alzheimer’s affects people in different ways, each person may experience symptoms — or progress through the stages — differently.

Overview of disease progression:

Age is the best known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Family history—researchers believe that genetics may play a role in developing Alzheimer’s disease. Changes in the brain can begin years before the first symptoms appear. There is growing scientific evidence that healthy behaviors, which have been shown to prevent cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, also may reduce risk for cognitive decline and possibly dementia.  These healthy behaviors include the following:

  • Managing hypertension (high blood pressure);
  • Being physically active;
  • Getting enough sleep;
  • Quit, or never begin, smoking;
  • Avoiding or managing diabetes; and
  • Managing mid-life obesity.

The Public Health Center of Excellence on Dementia Risk Reduction offers videos and short sumaries on the current evidence realted to multuiple possible risk factors. To access additional information about dementia risk and risk reduction, click here.

Minorities and women are at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer's are women. Hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and coronary artery disease are all risk factors for Alzheimer’s. These chronic conditions are more prevalent in Latinos and African Americans compared to other Americans, resulting in African Americans being two times more likely and Latinos being one and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than white Americans.

Other dementias include Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal disorders, and vascular dementia. It is common for people to have mixed dementia—a combination of two or more types of dementia. For example, some people have both Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

Alzheimer's is not just a disease of old age. Younger-onset (also known as early onset) Alzheimer's affects people in their 40s and 50s. Since health care providers generally don't look for Alzheimer's disease in younger people, getting an accurate diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's can be a long and frustrating process. Symptoms may be incorrectly attributed to stress or there may be conflicting diagnoses from different health care professionals.

Current approaches focus on helping people maintain mental function, manage behavioral symptoms,  slow down the symptoms, and treat the disease through drug and non-drug options. It is important that you and your loved ones discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider to understand what treatments might be right for you.

Receiving a diagnosis of dementia can be scary for many people, but there are many benefits associated with an early and accurate diagnosis. Benefits to early detection and early diagnosis include:

  • Access to treatment options;
  • An opportunity to participate in clinical trials;
  • Financial planning;
  • Opportunity to address safety issues;
  • Early emotional and physical support; and
  • Advanced care planning.

Receiveing an early diagnosis allows you to learn to live well with dementia and have your wishes honored as the disease progresses. Signs of memory loss can be due to underlying medical conditions, but they could also indicate early stages of dementia.  If you are experiencing signs of cognitive decline, contact your healthcare provider to discuss screening options. 

Educate yourself and your familiy  of the 10 warning signs of Alzhiemer's.

To learn more about public health work being done to address early detection and diagnosis, visit the BOLD Public Health Center of Excellence on Early Detetion of Dementia .