What is Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer's disease is a common disease, one of several, that can cause nerve cells in the brain to die, leading to problems in behavior, thinking, and mental function. While Alzheimer's disease is more common in the elderly, it is not just "getting old." It is a specific disease. In fact, rarely, young adults get it too. Alzheimer's disease may cause:
- Forget recent events or conversations more than usual
- Get lost more than usual, problems with "spatial orientation"
- Harder to think things through
- Impaired or strange behaviors, personality changes
- Less able to communicate
- Less able to follow directions or finish tasks
- Less attentive to hygiene
- More likely to leave a stove on, not pay bills, mismanage medicine, have a driving mishap
- More problems with names, coming up with words, or other language deterioration
- Reduced visual function
- Repeat the same question or comment more than normal
- Worse judgments
- Wrong or increased emotions
How is Alzheimer's different from other forms of dementia?
"Dementia" is a word used to describe a set of problems with thinking and behavior. It is not "being crazy." Some patients might be described instead as having "Mild Cognitive Impairment" (MCI). There are several diseases that can cause either dementia or MCI. Alzheimer's disease can cause either. Alzheimer's disease is a specific disease that changes the brain in specific ways, visible upon microscopic examination during autopsy. Brains affected by Alzheimer's disease often show presence of the following:
- Accumulation of a protein in the brain (amyloid)
- Clusters of degenerating nerve endings (neuritic plaques)
- Excessive shrinking in certain brain areas
- Fiber tangles within nerve cells (neurofibrillary tangles)
- Problems with the mitochondria, which are the energy centers, of brain cells
Another characteristic of Alzheimer's disease is the reduced production of certain brain chemicals necessary for communication between nerve cells.
We have specially trained cognitive-behavioral neurologists who can decide if a patient has dementia or MCI, and if it is being caused by Alzheimer disease, or by other diseases. We do this by listening to the patient and family members to learn about the problems that the patient has been experiencing, by doing a careful neurological physical examination, by performing special tests of thinking and mental function, by ordering laboratory tests, and by looking at different types of brain scans.
In addition to Alzheimer disease, we evaluate and manage patients with other forms of dementia, including:
- Dementia from stroke or cerebrovascular disease (sometimes called vascular dementia, multi-infarct dementia, Binswanger's disease)
- Dementia with Lewy Bodies
- Frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), sometimes called Pick's disease
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)
- Parkinson's disease dementia
- Primary progressive aphasia
To schedule an appointment with one of Alzheimer's disease specialists, please call (573) 882-1515.
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