Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, neurological disorder characterized by a decline in cognitive function that results in problems with day-to-day activities. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia and affects more than 5 million people in the United States. Unless a cure is found the number of persons affected in the US alone could reach 14 million by the year 2050.
What is Mild Cognitive Impairment?
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is an intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more pronounced decline of dementia. It involves problems with memory, language, thinking, and judgment that are greater than typical age-related changes. However, the changes associated with MCI aren’t severe enough to interfere with day-to-day life and ordinary activities. Unlike dementia, where cognitive abilities gradually decline, the memory deficits in MCI may remain stable for years. However, some individuals with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Do we know what causes AD?
Scientists still are not certain. Several risk factors, such as age and family history, have been identified as potential risk factors but cannot alone cause the disease. Each year, scientists are uncovering important new clues about potential causes of the disease, which is helping to find better diagnostic and treatment options.
What are the first signs of AD?
Individuals who exhibit several of the following symptoms should see a physician for a complete examination:
- Memory loss that affects job skills. It's normal to occasionally forget an assignment, deadline, or colleague's name, but frequent forgetfulness or unexplainable confusion at home or in the workplace may signal that something's wrong.
- Difficulty performing tasks of independent living. Busy people get distracted from time to time. For example, you might leave something on the stove too long or not remember to serve part of a meal. People with Alzheimer's might prepare a meal and not only forget to serve it but also forget they made it.
- Problems with language. Everyone has trouble finding the right word sometimes, but a person with Alzheimer's disease may forget simple words or substitute inappropriate words, making his or her sentences difficult to understand.
- Disorientation to time and place. It's normal to momentarily forget the day of the week or what you need from the store. But people with Alzheimer's disease can become lost on their own street, not knowing where they are, how they got there, or how to get back home.
- Poor or decreased judgment. Choosing not to bring a sweater or coat along on a chilly night is a common mistake. A person with Alzheimer's, however, may dress inappropriately in more noticeable ways, wearing a bathrobe to the store or several blouses on a hot day.
- Problems with abstract thinking. Balancing a checkbook can be challenging for many people, but for someone with Alzheimer's, recognizing numbers or performing basic calculations may be impossible.
- Misplacing things. Everyone temporarily misplaces a wallet or keys from time to time. A person with Alzheimer's disease may put these and other items in inappropriate places - such as an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl - and then not recall how they got there.
- Changes in mood or behavior. Everyone experiences a broad range of emotions - it's part of being human. People with Alzheimer's tend to exhibit more rapid mood swings for no apparent reason.
- Changes in personality. People's personalities may change somewhat as they age. But a person with Alzheimer's can change dramatically, either suddenly or over a period of time. Someone who is generally easygoing may become angry, suspicious, or fearful.
- Loss of initiative. It's normal to tire of housework, business activities, or social obligations, but most people retain or eventually regain their interest. A person with Alzheimer's disease may remain uninterested and uninvolved in many or all of his usual pursuits.
Does everyone who forgets have AD?
No. Everyone's memory is different, and we remember certain things better than others. It is not unusual for individuals to misplace their car keys; however, when it begins to affect your activities of daily living (work or social life), it is more than memory loss due to normal aging.
Is there a genetic basis for AD?
Researchers are exploring the role of genetics in the development of Alzheimer's, but most agree the disease is likely caused by a variety of factors. Approximately 19 million Americans say they have a family member with Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are studying the interplay between genetic and lifestyle risk factors.
Should people with a family history of AD be worried?
The evidence is not clear. There are two types of Alzheimer's disease: early-onset and late-onset. Early-onset Alzheimer's disease occurs at a much younger age, such as in one's 40s or 50s. Early-onset Alzheimer's disease has a strong genetic connection. Late-onset Alzheimer's disease occurs in people over the age of 65 and is much more common. The role of genetic risk factors may be less important for cases of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, but this is complicated and still poorly understood.
Understanding the genetic contribution to Alzheimer's disease is a major focus of research being conducted at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
Is there a blood test or brain scan that can diagnose AD?
Early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is very important, and the Wisconsin ADRC encourages early diagnosis. But there is no single, comprehensive diagnostic test for Alzheimer's disease. Instead, physicians or other specialists rule out other conditions through a process of elimination. They usually conduct physical, psychological, and neurological exams and take a thorough medical history. A diagnosis of probable Alzheimer's disease can be obtained through evaluation with approximately 90 percent accuracy. The only way to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is through autopsy.
The Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center is equipped to provide referrals to diagnostic Memory Assessment Clinics. Click here to learn more about this service.
What are the potential treatments for AD?
There is no medical treatment currently available to cure or stop the progression of Alzheimer's disease. Four FDA-approved drugs—donepezil (Aricept®), rivastigmine (Exelon®), galantamine (Reminyl® or Razadyne®), and memantine (Namenda®)—may temporarily relieve some symptoms of the disease and potentially stabilize its progression.
What are the latest findings in AD research?
The Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center is committed to educating the community about the latest updates in AD research through our outreach events, our newsletters, and through direct discussion with our research participants. Information on research advances can also be found at the Alzheimer's Research Forum. In addition to clinical trials conducted in partnership with the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, information on clinical trials for people both with and without memory problems can be obtained by visiting the following websites: Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center (ADEAR) Clinical Trials, the Alzheimer's Association TrialMatch, and ClinicalTrials.gov.