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Alzheimer Disease

We all forget things once in a while. Maybe you've forgotten to send a card for someone's birthday or to return an overdue library book.

Forgetting stuff is a part of life and it often becomes more common as people age.

But Alzheimer (say: alts-hi-mer) disease, which affects some older people, is different from everyday forgetting. It is a condition that permanently affects the brain, and over time, makes it harder to remember even basic stuff, like how to tie a shoe.

Eventually, the person may have trouble remembering the names and faces of family members — or even who he or she is. This can be very sad for the person and their families.

It's important to know that Alzheimer disease does not affect kids. It usually affects people over 65 years of age. Researchers have found medicines that seem to slow the disease down. And there's hope that someday there will be a cure.

What Happens in the Brain?

You probably know that your brain works by sending signals. Chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters (say: nur-oh-trans-mih-terz), allow brain cells to communicate with each other. But a person with Alzheimer disease has decreased amounts of neurotransmitters.

People with Alzheimer disease also develop deposits of stuff (protein and fiber) that prevent the cells from working properly. When this happens, the cells can't send the right signals to other parts of the brain. Over time, brain cells affected by Alzheimer disease also begin to shrink and die.

Lots of research is being done to find out more about the causes of Alzheimer disease. There is no one reason why people get Alzheimer disease. Older people are more likely to get it, and the risk gets greater the older the person gets. For instance, the risk is higher for someone who is 85 than it is for someone who is 65. And women are more likely to get it than men.

Researchers also think genes handed down from family members can make a person more likely to get Alzheimer disease. But that doesn't mean everyone related to someone who has it will get the disease. Other factors, combined with genes, may make it more likely that someone will get the disease. Some of them are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Down syndrome, or having a head injury.

On the positive side, researchers believe exercise, a healthy diet, and taking steps to keep your mind active (like doing crossword puzzles) may help delay the onset of Alzheimer disease.

How Do People Know They Have It?

The first sign of Alzheimer disease is a continuous pattern of forgetting things. This starts to affect a person's daily life. He or she may forget where the grocery store is or the names of family and friends. This stage of the disease may last for some time or quickly progress, causing memory loss and forgetfulness to get worse.

What Will the Doctor Do?

It can be hard for a doctor to diagnose Alzheimer disease because many of its symptoms (like memory problems) can be like those of other conditions affecting the brain. The doctor will talk to the patient, find out about any medical problems the person has, and will examine him or her.

The doctor can ask the person questions or have the person take a written test to see how well his or her memory is working. Doctors also can use medical tests (such as MRI or CT scans) to take a detailed picture of the brain. They can study these images and look for the deposits of proteins and fiber that are typical of Alzheimer disease.

Once a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer disease, the doctor may prescribe medicine to help with memory and thinking. The doctor also might give the person medicine for other problems, such as depression (sad feelings that last a long time). Unfortunately the medicines that the doctors have can't cure Alzheimer disease; they just help slow down the disease.

When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer Disease

You might feel sad or angry — or both — if someone you love has Alzheimer disease. You might feel nervous around the person, especially if he or she is having trouble remembering important things or can no longer take care of himself or herself.

You might not want to go visit the person, even though your mom or dad wants you to. You are definitely not alone in these feelings. Try talking with a parent or another trusted adult. Just saying what's on your mind may help you feel better. You also may learn that the adults in your life are having struggles of their own with the situation.

If you visit a loved one who has Alzheimer disease, try to be patient. He or she may have good days and bad days. It can be sad if you no longer are able to have fun in the same ways together. Maybe you and your grandmother liked to go to concerts. If that's no longer possible, maybe bring her some wonderful music on a CD and listen together. It's a way to show her that you care — and showing that love is important even if her memory is failing.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011