Alzheimer's disease is an illness that causes abnormal destruction of the brain during the aging process. It’s a form of "dementia," which is a general term for a disease leading to loss of normal memory and thinking that impairs one’s ability to live independently.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common of many diseases that cause dementia. The percentage of people who have Alzheimer’s disease increases with age, from about 10 percent of those age 65, to almost 50 percent by age 85. The exact cause of Alzheimer's disease is unknown. However, accumulation of certain abnormal proteins in the brain is known to be involved. 

What are the signs of Alzheimer's disease?

The most common early symptom of Alzheimer's disease is usually memory impairment. Someone may be having difficulty remembering things, repeating the same questions over and over, or getting lost in usually familiar places. Later, they may start having difficulty carrying out tasks, such as paying bills, and are eventually unable to recognize loved ones or function independently, even on a basic level.

Does everyone with memory problems have Alzheimer's disease?

We all forget things from time to time, as some degree of forgetfulness is expected with age. People who have memory problems that are a bit more concerning may have what’s called "mild cognitive impairment." This can lead to the early stages of Alzheimer's disease in some people. Others will not progress beyond mild forgetfulness. Although people usually begin to notice symptoms of Alzheimer’s around age 65, the disease process is thought to begin much earlier. For this reason, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible.

How do I get tested for Alzheimer's disease?

The best place to start is with your primary care physician. Your doctor may then refer you to a specialist for a more detailed evaluation. Testing involves questions that highlight subtle difficulties with memory and thinking that you may not notice yourself. Additional blood tests and brain imaging are often recommended.

Are there treatments for Alzheimer's disease?

Currently available medicines can help with some of the symptoms of memory loss, but unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for Alzheimer's disease at this time. These medicines work best during the early stages of the disease, which is another reason to visit your doctor sooner rather than later.

What research is being conducted on Alzheimer's disease?

This is an encouraging time in Alzheimer’s research. National and international networks of research centers are collaborating on clinical trials that are making daily progress on groundbreaking diagnostic methods and promising new treatments. Some studies are focused on finding ways to predict which people with mild memory problems are at risk for progressing to Alzheimer’s disease, while others are developing prevention strategies.

Thousands of people with Alzheimer's disease, mild cognitive impairment, and even cognitively normal individuals have enrolled in these trials. Recent advances in our understanding of this devastating disease would have been impossible without their gracious dedication. If you’re interested, please get involved!

For more information, visit the Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders Center website.

Jonathan Drake, MD

Dr. Jonathan Drake is associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital, and specializes in aging and dementia. His clinical and research interests are in the early detection and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.