UW News

September 30, 1996

Facts About Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the leading cause of severe memory loss late in life. The National Institute on Aging estimates that 4 million people in the United States suffer from AD. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 82,000 people in Washington state are afflicted with the disease. Approximately 10 percent of people over age 65, and 50 percent of those over 85, have AD. In people who have inherited a gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, it can occur in the 40s and 50s. It is the fourth leading cause of death in adults, after heart disease, cancer and stroke. Men and women are affected almost equally.
Symptoms of AD include gradual progressive memory loss, decline in the ability to perform routine tasks, disorientation, difficulty in learning, loss of language skills, impairment of judgment and ability to plan, and personality changes. The time from onset of symptoms until death ranges from three to 20 years; the average is eight years. Eventually, persons with Alzheimer’s disease become totally incapable of caring for themselves.

The disease was first described in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist who autopsied a woman who died following a mysterious mental disorder. In her brain, he found abnormal deposits called plaques and tangled nerve fibers inside nerve cells. Researchers have since developed a deeper understanding of the changes in the brain and behavioral changes that characterize the disease. The disease also affects the family and other caregivers. Family members are under great stress, often risking their own health to care for the Alzheimer’s patient at home. The financial, emotional and social costs of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient are staggering.

Although AD is incurable, early evaluation is important because many other conditions, including some that are treatable or reversible, can also cause progressive memory loss. Potentially reversible conditions include depression, adverse drug reactions, metabolic changes and nutritional deficiencies. There is no single test to identify AD. While a battery of evalution techniques can provide a diagnosis of possible or probable AD, confirmation requires examination of brain tissue, usually done by autopsy.