Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is a condition that destroys brain cells. People with this disease slowly lose the ability to learn, function and remember. It's the most common cause of dementia. Dementia is a loss in mental abilities that is great enough to interfere with daily life.


The cause of Alzheimer's is unknown. Two factors that may play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease are:

  • Plaques — Abnormal deposits of a substance called beta amyloid in different areas of the brain
  • Neurofibrillary tangles — Twisted fibers (called tau fibers) within the nerve cells

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of Alzheimer's disease include:

  • Age: 65 and older
  • Previous serious, traumatic brain injury
  • Lower educational achievement
  • Obesity in middle age
  • Down syndrome
  • Down syndrome in a first-degree relative
  • Women under age 35 who give birth to a child with Down's syndrome
  • Smoking
  • Family history of Alzheimer's disease
  • Presence of a certain type of protein (APOE-e4)
  • Depression
  • Elevated levels of homocysteine
  • Heart disease

Researchers are studying the following to see if they are related to Alzheimer's disease:

  • Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiency in childhood
  • Excess metal in the blood, especially zinc, copper, aluminum and iron
  • Certain viral infections
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol

Alzheimer's Symptoms

The disease begins as mild memory lapses and continues toward a profound loss of memory and function. Alzheimer's disease is divided into three stages:

  • Early — Loss of memory, reasoning, understanding or learning, but does not interfere with independence
  • Intermediate — Increased mental loss, personality changes and increased dependence on others for basic needs
  • Severe — Loss of personality and bodily functions with total dependence on others for care

Symptoms include:

  • Increasing trouble remembering things, such as:
    • How to get to familiar locations
    • The names of family and friends
    • Where common objects are usually kept
    • How to do simple math
    • How to do everyday tasks, such as cooking, dressing, bathing, etc.
  • Having difficulty concentrating on tasks
  • Having difficulty completing sentences due to lost or forgotten words (may progress to complete inability to speak)
  • Forgetting the date, time of day or season
  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings
  • Having mood swings
  • Being withdrawn, losing interest in usual activities
  • Having personality changes
  • Walking in a slow, shuffling way
  • Having poor coordination
  • Losing purposeful movement

There are no tests to confirm Alzheimer's. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam.

Tests to rule out other medical conditions may include:

  • Neurological exams
  • Psychological and mental status testing
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)
  • Blood tests and urine tests
  • Lumbar puncture 
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan 

Treating the Symptoms

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. Currently, four medicines are available to treat some of the symptoms. The goal is to find a medicine that can manage the symptoms or slow the condition's course.

Lifestyle Management

Managing the disease includes:

  • Creating an environment in which you can receive the care you need
  • Keeping your quality of life as high as possible
  • Keeping yourself safe
  • Helping yourself learn to deal with the frustration of your uncontrollable behavior
  • Providing a calm, quiet, predictable environment
  • Providing appropriate eyewear and hearing aids and easy-to-read clocks and calendars
  • Playing quiet music
  • Doing light, appropriate exercise to reduce agitation and relieve depression
  • Encouraging family and close friends to visit frequently

Psychiatric Medication

Psychiatric symptoms may occur with Alzheimer’s disease. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to treat:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion, paranoia and hallucinations


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.