Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias
What is Dementia?
Alzheimer’s disease is an age-related brain disorder that gradually destroys a person’s ability to remember, think, learn and carry out even simple tasks. “Dementia” is a broad term describing a variety of diseases and conditions that damage brain cells and impair brain function. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and accounts for sixty to eighty percent of cases. It is often difficult to distinguish among the types of dementias. Some of the change processes in the brain are similar in the different types of dementia. Consequently people with the different types of dementia and their families face many similar challenges.
The most common types of dementia are:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Vascular Dementia
- Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB)
- Mixed Dementia
- Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
- Frontotemporal Dementia
- Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease
- Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
- Huntington’s Disease
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Our brain health and our thinking and reasoning abilities, our cognitive health, may or may not decline as we get older. And changes are gradual along a continuum from no change to small changes (mild cognitive impairment) to severe changes (dementia).
Most agree that the components of good brain health and healthy cognitive functioning include:
- ability to plan and carry out tasks,
- remembered skills (such as driving), and
- the ability to live a purposeful life.
Some people never develop a serious decline in cognitive function and not all who develop mild cognitive impairment develop dementia.
Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias
The causes of Alzheimer’s disease are not currently known, but research suggests a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. The effect of each of these factors is different for each individual person. The most recognized risk factor for developing cognitive decline and dementia is advancing age. The likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles every 5 years after age 65. And, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia increases dramatically after age eighty.
Who Has Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias?
More than ninety percent of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia cases occur in people age sixty and older. A small number of people, age thirty to sixty years, develop “early-onset” Alzheimer’s disease. This “early-onset” form of the disease often runs in families.
More than 5.4 million Americans were estimated to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias in 2012. In American communities, only about half of the people who would meet the criteria for Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias have been diagnosed. It is likely that half of the estimated 5.4 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias do not know they are affected. Unless something can be done to delay the onset, or to halt or reverse the course of dementia conditions, researchers predict as many as 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s disease or related conditions by 2050.
Prevention, Treatment and Cure
Currently there are no medications or other interventions that definitively prevent, treat, or cure these conditions and we are unable to diagnose the disease before symptoms occur.
Scientists are evaluating whether strategies like exercise, changes in food habits, maintaining relationships with friends and family or “brain games” can prevent or slow Alzheimer’s disease or related conditions. To date, the studies have not shown that, over the long term, health or lifestyle factors, medications or dietary supplements are effective prevention strategies.