Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible brain disease that affects memory, thinking, and the ability to complete daily tasks. Approximately 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease. It is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 60 to 80% of all dementia cases. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, and the disease is typically fatal within 10 years of onset.
Read on to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease risk factors, symptoms, and research efforts.
People in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease
Percent of all dementia cases attributed to Alzheimer’s
People under age 65 have early-onset Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s Disease Risk Factors
Age is the top risk factor, and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 65. However, about 200,000 people under age 65 have early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors can play a role in causing dementia-related diseases like Alzheimer’s. The most significant factor in early-onset dementia is genetics. If a person has a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s, that person has double the likelihood of developing it.
Cardiovascular conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol may also be contributing factors to Alzheimer’s. In addition, secondary conditions such as stroke can be factors.
Alzheimer’s Disease Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include memory loss beyond what is normal with aging, especially difficulty remembering new information or recent events, repeating questions, and forgetting important dates; problems with completing everyday tasks; misplacing items; and trouble concentrating, problem-solving, or making decisions. As the condition progresses, people can become confused, irritable, and suspicious. They will gradually lose their independence and require an increasing level for care over time. Ultimately, they become fully dependent on others.
Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosis
While advances in Alzheimer’s research include testing to diagnose the condition at a very early stage, this technology for this is not accessible to most people. However, doctors can make a diagnosis by gathering a detailed medical history from the patient or a family member, conducting a neurological exam, and evaluating memory, cognitive skills, and other functions. It’s also important to rule out other conditions that can present with similar symptoms.
Alzheimer’s disease causes a buildup of plaques and tangles from specific proteins (beta-amyloid and tau) in the brain, which causes brain cells to malfunction and eventually die. Diagnostic tests that measure the levels of these proteins in the blood or fluid surrounding the brain are under development and would create a more accurate way to diagnose the disease.
Alzheimer’s Disease Treatments
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Two types of drugs are commonly used to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s: cholinesterase inhibitors in the early to moderate stages of disease, and memantine for moderate to severe stages. Both of these drugs work by impacting the chemical messengers involved in memory and learning.
Other medications can be used to treat symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, and improve quality of life. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including good nutrition, exercise, sleep and socialization, can help manage Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s Disease Research Efforts
Because the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s has been challenging, it’s been hard for clinical trials to make sure they’re including people with the disease. As advances in the field make it easier to diagnose Alzheimer’s, it will be easier for clinical trials to study new treatments.
Orlena was driving with her young daughter in the car when she suffered a stroke because of a rare brain vessel disorder called Moyamoya. After two brain surgeries and six months unable to care for her daughter, Orlena began to reclaim her independence and became a Moyamoya advocate.
At 15 years old, Zoe has been navigating her Tourette syndrome diagnosis for eight years. “I had to figure out at a young age how my emotions affect my tics, from good to awful ways. It has been frustrating to figure out on my own and learn to deal with. This was the first moment in my life where my parents couldn’t fix something for me.”
Sasha was diagnosed with epilepsy after sustaining a soccer-related brain injury in high school. Since then, Sasha has worked to find both a treatment that controlled her seizures and a career that fulfilled her desire to care for others. “Life isn’t meant to be lived taking multiple medications and having seizures you can’t control.”
Before frontotemporal lobe dementia, sometimes called Pick’s disease, Ken Keene Sr. was a respected community member and a handyman who could fix anything. For his oldest son and namesake Ken Keene Jr., there was nothing his father couldn’t do: “To my family, he was just that super dad. Then all of a sudden he’s reaching out for help.”
It started with a twinge. After a simple surgery and some physical therapy, Morgan wasn’t getting better. It took two more surgeries before she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) type II.
In 2018, Kelly was diagnosed with glioblastoma after an MRI confirmed that a golf-ball-sized tumor above her right ear was affecting the left side of her body. After surgery to remove the tumor, Kelly was able to get through her darkest days with a healthy dose of humor. Now she is an advocate for other patients living with strokes and brain tumors.
When her father was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2005, Nancy quickly shifted into the role of his caregiver. Nancy and her sisters drew from their individual strengths to provide their father with medical assistance and emotional support until his passing in 2012. At that time, he was diagnosed again with Lewy body dementia. “No matter what your financial situation, there’s probably going to be help out there… Just don’t do it alone, because burning yourself out is not going to help anybody.”
Maureen worked as a high school English teacher until she started experiencing a confusing array of symptoms that affected her ability to work, along with her relationships with family and friends. After visiting numerous specialists for years, Maureen received a delayed diagnosis of Lewy body dementia. Now Maureen wants to raise awareness about what life is like with living with this disease. “I felt that I just wanted to offer something to this community that I hadn’t been able to find really.”
For the first 32 years of his life, Joey experienced seizures from epilepsy. For several years, Joey worked hard in his career as a pipe welder and in construction until his seizures started happening more frequently and intensely. Brain surgery became Joey’s only viable option for treatment. Doctors were unsure if Joey would be able to survive after finding more brain damage than expected, but he surprised everyone by thriving during his post-surgery recovery.
At age 40, Ben was perfectly healthy and active until he started noticing the early symptoms of a neurological condition that weakened his physical movements. After a 2-year search for his diagnosis of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy, he began his journey as an advocate for others living with rare diseases. Last year, Ben joined the board of the American Brain Foundation to further his impact.
In 2002, while her young daughter battled a fatal diagnosis of pons glioma, Michele experienced a life-threatening brain hemorrhage when a brain malformation she likely had since birth ruptured. She experienced drastic changes in the way her brain functioned, especially in regard to memory and spatial awareness. Today, Michele is still learning to adjust. “When someone’s brain is not functioning correctly it impacts everything in their life. It impacts how they think, how they feel about themselves, it’s a very hopeless space to be in as a person.”
Matt is a husband, father, and professional photographer. Over the past 11 years, he has had surgeries and radiation to remove five benign brain tumors. Following the third surgery, he began to experience more struggles in his daily life. “I think the biggest loss is my relationship to my family. They saw me as the dad and strong. Now they can’t count on me as much. It’s important to support people with brain disease ‘cause it can happen to anybody.’”
When she was in her early 30’s, Mary Jo’s relationship with her parents was forever altered by brain disease. Her father suffered a subdural hematoma, was diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy, and experienced a stroke while her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. “They’re a responsibility that I have to take care of as they have taken care of me.”
Tom suffers from dystonia, a painful neurological movement disorder with no known cure. When he first started experiencing strange pains and cramps in his neck muscles, he saw chiropractors and physical therapists—but when this didn’t help, Tom started down a long and painful road to an eventual diagnosis. Before his diagnosis at 30 years old, Tom was an athlete and an entrepreneur, but as his symptoms worsened, even performing everyday tasks became a challenge. Before long, the pain became debilitating. Over time, Tom learned to accept his new limitations and focus on his physical and mental health.