Understanding Alzheimer's disease

Understanding Alzheimer's disease

Occasionally forget where you put your car keys? We all do. But imagine being unable to recognize your spouse’s face or remember your children’s names.

An estimated 5.3 million Americans struggle with this grim reality — and as the age of the baby boomer generation increases, so will the number.

“Alzheimer’s is the most common degenerative disease of the elderly — of epidemic proportions,” says Dr. Liana Apostolova, neurologist and researcher at highly rated UCLA Health System in Los Angeles.

The disease is thought to be caused by the clumping of beta-amyloid and tau proteins that build up like plaque in the brain tissue. The plaque has a toxic effect on the brain, killing neurons and resulting in cognitive impairment.

This actually causes brain matter to shrink and the crevices of the brain to become deeper and wider — resulting in memory loss and eventually death.

Apostolova says when a patient dies of Alzheimer's, you can actually see the plaque buildup in the brain with a microscope. "It's a disease that engulfs the brain," she says. "The effects are devastating. It robs someone of themselves."

Stages of Alzheimer's

  • In the beginning, the patient displays a gradual decline in the ability to retain new information.
  • As the damage to the brain grows, confusion, disorganized thinking, impaired judgment, difficulty expressing oneself and disorientation of time, space and location occurs. This can lead to dangerous behavior such as wandering and socially inappropriate actions.
  • People in the advanced stages need assistance with daily activities such as eating, using the bathroom, dressing and bathing.
  • Once a person is in the final phase, they are bed-bound and reliant on constant care — due to losing the ability to communicate and recognize their loved ones.

Potential risk factors for Alzheimer's disease

  • Age. As people get older, their brain's ability to dispose of the proteins that cause the death of neurons decreases.
  • Poor diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in fish oil.
  • Head trauma, accompanied with loss of consciousness.
  • Genetics and family history. While there isn't a single gene responsible, a combination of genes may be to blame.
  • Lack of activity, exercise and education. Keeping your brain and body busy seems to delay the onset.

Treatments for Alzheimer's

There's currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but the FDA has approved medications that may prove helpful. Drugs like Namenda and Aricept slow down the rate of decline in thinking and memory loss, and increase the patients' ability to perform daily activities.

"We can't stop the disease or the progression," Apostolova says. "But we can improve the symptoms."

Apostolova says there may be greater hope for the future. A vaccine designed to clear the plaque caused by the beta-amyloid protein is currently in trial, and medications are being developed that may prevent the proteins from clumping together.

But for now, Apostolova says the goal is to detect Alzheimer's as quickly as possible. "Early diagnosis is extremely important," she says. "It's what we researchers are focusing on now."

More Like This

Are Mom or Dad showing signs of Alzheimer's?

qa_alzheimers_0514_web photo 2.jpg

If detected early, treatments can improve quality of life for people with Alzheimer's disease. (Photo courtesy of Alzheimer's Association)
If detected early, treatments can improve quality of life for people with Alzheimer's disease. (Photo courtesy of Alzheimer's Association)

Watch for signs of mental degradation in loved ones, and encourage them to see their doctor, if you suspect early onslaught of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Leave a Comment - 11




i've heard of certain vitamins and foods that will slow the progression. it's worth the research. my mom's had dementia for probably the last 8 years. i live out of town, but so far, the last time i talked to her she still knows who i am.

Allen Golden


In the book The Dynamite Story of Alzheimer's Recoveries there is a step by step guide to recovery from Alzheimer's Disease. Check this out and you will be surprised!



My (almost 90 year old) mother was diagnosed with stage 1 AD about two years ago. It was recently determined she is now in stage 2. She is remarkably healthy physically and still has a wonderful attitude for life, but the signs are evident she is on the decline mentally. The interesting thing (to me) is that she has a twin brother who has been right on track with her with his AD. It's amazing how similar their symptoms are and their "timetables" as the disease progresses in both of them. I wonder, is this at all typical for twins?



Charlotte: (And everyone else)


There are clinical trials, however, the enrollment for those have been CLOSED.




My mother had to go to a nursing home 6 yrs ago with alzheimer's and I have read everything thing I can get my hands on dealing with this subject and I have never read about a vaccine for it. But, there is a blood test that can be given to see if you carry the 2 types of genes that go with alzheimer's. Often thought I would like to do the test, but with living with this and watching her be taken away piece by piece, memory by memory, I'm not so sure I want to know.

cathie hay


I would like to know where or how one would access info about the trial for vaccine for AD.



I know there's a kind we create. I did it. Some things became so painful that I made CHOICES to forget them, as the list increased, I realized I was so successful at the skill of forgetting, I started to forget everything. Be careful what you want you might get it.

Karen Dawson


My father has had Alzheimers for over 13 years. With Alzheimers drugs the progression slowed so it may be an additional 13-20 years of torture. My mother is killing herself caring for Dad and Dad is 95% of the time clueless about everything. I will not take these or any other life extending drugs because of this.



Would be interested to know what efforts are being made to educate healthcare providers, and elder care providers about how to deal with Alzheimer's patients exhibiting impaired judgement with regard to treatment/medication. In my experience, this is not always being handled responsibly - especially in long term care facilities. They will ignore the wishes of the patient's family and doctor, and instead, take directions from the patient with dementia - to that patient's harm and detriment.

myra leissler


Please send latest information on how to detect early signs of Alz.

View Comments - 11 Hide Comments

Post New Comment


What is Angie's List?

Angie’s List is the trusted site where more than 3 million households go to get ratings and reviews on everything from home repair to health care. Stop guessing when it comes to hiring! Check Angie’s List to find out who does the best work in town.

Local Discounts

Daily deals up to 70% off popular home improvement projects from top-rated contractors on Angie’s List!