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Alzheimer's Disease

Aging and the Brain: Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease

With aging, the brain can develop diseases which affect memory and behavior. The most common of these conditions is Alzheimer's disease - a form of dementia that affects over 5 million people in the United States today.

Dementia

Dementia is a condition of the brain leading to problems with:

People with dementia, even in the early stages, may have trouble with driving. Dementia has many causes (see below), and only one of those is Alzheimer's.

Normal Memory Problems of Aging vs. Abnormal Memory Problems

Even healthy people develop problems with memory as they get older. These can be noticed rarely beginning in the 30s but become more frequent after the age of 60. The important difference is that in dementia the memory problem interferes with day-to-day activities at work and at home. With healthy aging, memory problems usually do not cause a problem with daily life. A patient with dementia may forget he wears glasses while a healthy older person may forget where he put his glasses.

Many people with Alzheimer's disease are not aware they have significant memory loss. Often they will deny the seriousness of their problem with memory, and family members will notice these issues to a greater extent than the patient.

Getting Diagnosed

It is important that people with symptoms of dementia be evaluated to determine the cause of the illness. This can be done by a doctor who specializes in neurology, psychiatry, geriatrics, or internal or family medicine.

Reversible Dementia

There are other causes of memory loss and brain-function problems that are not related to Alzheimer's disease. Many causes may be completely reversible if recognized early. The most common causes of reversible dementias are:

Medications - It is common for older people to have memory problems because they are taking medications that can affect memory. Ask your doctor about these medications and about potential medication interactions leading to thinking problems.

Organ System Disorders - Disorders of any organ system (such as the heart, lungs, liver, kidney or endocrine glands) can also cause dementia and may be reversible if properly recognized.

Poisoning - Dementia also can be caused by poisoning from lead, carbon monoxide (from space heaters in the home) or poorly ventilated furnaces.

Alcohol Abuse - Alcohol abuse is also a common cause of dementia.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease usually affects people over the age of 70. It begins with slow loss of memory for recent events, bit by bit. People with this disease usually can remember events in the distant past. They also may have a hard time finding words, remembering names and finding their way around familiar areas. Their personality can change too.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's Disease

In the early stages, Alzheimer's disease can be difficult to diagnose and the only signs that one can sees are typically changes in memory. A little later in the course, a person usually has problems with:

If a person or a loved one develops Alzheimer's, they should not lose hope. There are several treatments for Alzheimer's disease and they seem to work better the earlier they are started. It is important for anyone experiencing memory loss to be evaluated so the proper diagnosis and treatment can be made before the disease progresses too far.

This article was originally authored by Robert P Friedland, MD, formerly of Case Western Reserve University, and published on NetWellness with permission.

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This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: Oct 20, 2010

Douglas W Scharre, MD Douglas W Scharre, MD
Clinical Associate Professor of Neurology
Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University