This dreaded disease begins slowly and can only be positively diagnosed at autopsy. Often treatment is only sought once the disease has progressed and symptoms are severe, when, unfortunately, there is little modern science can do.
WHAT IS IT?
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia among older people. It involves the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language. Every day scientists learn more, but right now, the causes of AD are still unknown, and there is no cure.
AD begins slowly. At first, the only symptom may be mild forgetfulness. However, as the disease goes on, symptoms are more easily noticed and become serious enough to cause people with AD or their family members to seek medical help. For example, people in the later stages of AD may forget how to do simple tasks, like brushing their teeth or combing their hair. They can no longer think clearly. They begin to have problems speaking, understanding, reading, or writing. Later on, people with AD may become anxious or aggressive, or wander away from home. Eventually, patients need total care.
WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?
Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes AD. There probably is not one single cause, but several factors that affect each person differently. Age is the most important known risk factor for AD. The number of people with the disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65.Family history is another risk factor. Scientists believe that genetics may play a role in many AD cases. Scientists still need to learn a lot more about what causes AD. In addition to genetics, they are studying education, diet, environment, and viruses to learn what role they might play in the development of this disease.
CAN I STOP IT?
Recent research suggests that ginkgo biloba, an extract made from the leaves of the ginkgo tree, may be of some help in treating AD symptoms. There is no evidence that ginkgo will cure or prevent AD. Scientists now are trying to find out whether ginkgo biloba can delay or prevent dementia in older people. Research has also shown that vitamin E slows the progress of some consequences of AD by about 7 months. Scientists now are studying vitamin E to learn whether it can prevent or delay AD in patients with MCI.
No treatment can stop AD. However, for some people in the early and middle stages of the disease, the drugs tacrine (Cognex), donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), or galantamine (Reminyl) may help prevent some symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time. Also, some medicines may help control behavioral symptoms of AD such as sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety, and depression. Treating these symptoms often makes patients more comfortable and makes their care easier for caregivers.