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Discovering Alzheimer's Disease

by James Donovan, MD

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that damages several parts of the brain. The most common signs are poor memory and trouble doing the things that a person used to do such as balancing a checkbook, grocery shopping or finding the right words while talking. Alzheimer’s disease tends to progress slowly and is often present 10 years or more before a formal diagnosis is made.

We are not sure what causes the damage to the brain of people with Alzheimer’s, but we do know that it is not contagious. While most common in people in their late 70s, it can occur as young as age 40. About one in three people older than age 85 have Alzheimer’s disease.

Early in the disease most people don’t even know they have it. Often family members see the symptoms a person cannot see in themselves. Symptoms of poor memory, not thinking clearly or a change in emotional reactions are noted. Patients often show frustration or depression, as they cannot understand what is going on.

There is no test for Alzheimer’s disease. A careful history noting progression of symptoms and ruling out other diseases by lab and imaging studies is all a physician can go on – at this point in time.

Unfortunately, there is also no cure for Alzheimer’s, but some medications may slow progression. Most treatment is centered on safety and keeping patients active and engaged for as long as possible at home. Later, assisted living or nursing home care may be needed.

Talking with family members early on in the disease – so that everyone understands the care a person would like when he or she is unable to speak for himself or herself – can lead to clear and thoughtful treatment in accordance with a patient’s wishes.

Talk with your doctor if you have questions about Alzheimer’s disease.

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