Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative disorder of the brain that causes progressive deterioration of memory, comprehension, intellectual function and behavior.
At one time, it was called “senile dementia” and was thought to be a deviation of the normal aging process, however, Alzheimer's should not be confused with the simple forgetfulness of the aging process. It usually affects people over the age of 60, however, onset has been seen in some patients as early as age 40.
The onset of Alzheimer's may be subtle and progress slowly or it can develop rapidly with a decline in mental capacity over a short period of time, but the average duration is approximately seven years from onset. General health and abilities decline to the point where the patient is unable to care for him/herself and they eventually die.
Although its exact cause has yet to be determined, changes in the brain such as decreased or altered levels of certain neurotransmitters that relay messages from neuron to neuron have been identified.
A blood protein called apoE that leads to nerve cell damage also appears to be altered in people with this disease.
Some studies point toward the possibility of the interaction of this protein with heavy metals such as aluminum, mercury, and other elements such as iron, zinc and calcium leading to plaque formation within the brain, as well as an imbalance of brain chemicals causing destruction of tissue.
A strong argument has also been made regarding free radical formation and the role of oxidative stress in promoting damage to brain tissue.
It is unclear if this is a cause or just an effect of the disease, however, there is no doubt that a reduction in oxidative stress can slow progression of the disease.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can include significant lapses in memory, dramatic mood changes, emotional outbursts, inability to retain new information, difficulty performing familiar everyday tasks, impaired judgment and decision-making abilities and other cognitive functions, general disorientation and confusion, and overall personality change.
The prognosis for people with Alzheimer's is poor. This disease progresses steadily and development of total disability is common. Eventually the Alzheimer's patient requires some type of nursing care, either by family members or a nursing home facility.
Death normally occurs not from the disease itself, but usually from an infection such as pneumonia, or the failure of other body systems.
Unfortunately, although there are medications to control symptoms and diminish progression, Alzheimer's is a degenerating disease that is neither gender nor race specific. It's difficult for both for the patient and the family to adjust to changes that occur over the course of the disease.