Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that occurs when nerve cells in the brain die.

The disease can impair memory, thinking, and behavior, causing personality and behavior changes, language deterioration, and emotional apathy.

When Alzheimer’s was first identified, by German physician, Alois Alzheimer, in 1906, it was considered a rare disorder. Today, Alzheimer’s disease is recognized as the most common cause of dementia, a disorder in which mental functions deteriorate and break down. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, this number includes 5.1 million people older than age 65, as well as 200,000 to 500,000 people younger than 65 who have early-onset Alzheimer’s and other types of dementias.


What causes Alzheimer’s disease? Although intense investigation has been under way for many years, the causes aren’t entirely known. They may include the following:

  • Age and family history

  • Certain genes

  • Abnormal protein deposits in the brain

  • Other risk and environmental factors

  • Immune system problems

Alzheimer's Symptoms Include:

  • Memory loss, including trouble with directions and familiar tasks.
  • Language problems, such as trouble getting words out or understanding what is said.
  • Accusation of others having stolen things when they have been misplaced
  • Difficulty with planning, organizing, concentration, and judgment. This includes persons not being able to recognize their own symptoms.
  • Changes in behavior and personality, including apathy, irritability or aggressive behaviors.

Diagnostic Tests and Procedures

There is not a single, comprehensive test for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. By ruling out other conditions through a process of elimination, doctors can diagnose probable Alzheimer’s disease with about 90 percent accuracy. However, the only way to confirm the diagnosis is through autopsy of the brain.

It’s essential to determine whether the dementia is the result of a treatable illness. In addition to a complete medical history and extensive neurological motor and sensory exam, diagnostic procedures for Alzheimer’s disease may include the following:

  • Mental status test

  • Neuropsychological testing

  • Blood tests

  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)

  • Urinalysis

  • Chest X-ray

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)—a procedure that records the brain’s continuous electrical activity using electrodes attached to the scalp

  • Computed tomography scan (CT scan)

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)—a test that records the electrical activity of the heart


Medications can help with some of the most troubling symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as depression, behavioral disturbance, and sleeplessness. In managing the disease, physical exercise and social activity are important, as are proper nutrition and maintaining good health. People who have Alzheimer’s benefit from a calm environment, with daily activities that help to provide structure, meaning, and accomplishment. It’s important to adapt activities and routines so that the individual can do as many things independently as possible.

Because the controllable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are unknown, it isn’t yet possible to reduce the chances of developing the disease. At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, no way of slowing down its progression, and no treatment available to reverse the deterioration. But new research findings give reason for hope, and several drugs are being studied in clinical trials to determine if they can improve memory or slow the progress of the disease.

Medical Reviewer: [Jane Sweetwood, RN, MN, CCRN, Sara Foster, RN, MPH] Last Annual Review Date: 2009-07-16T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: © 2000-2010 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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More than 5.3 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer's disease, with a new person developing the disease every 70 seconds. Americans ages 65 and older with Alzheimer's and dementia pay three times as much in health care costs.