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Early Alzheimer's Disease

Patient and Family Guide Basics

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Updated February 20, 2004

Terms You Need to Know

Dementia is a medical condition that interferes with the way the brain works. Symptoms include anxiety, paranoia, personality changes, lack of initiative, and difficulty acquiring new skills. Besides Alzheimer's disease, some other types or causes of dementia include: alcoholic dementia, depression, delirium, HIV/AIDS-related dementia, Huntington's disease (a disorder of the nervous system), inflammatory disease (for example, syphilis), vascular dementia (blood vessel disease in the brain), tumors, and Parkinson's disease.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It proceeds in stages over months or years and gradually destroys memory, reason, judgment, language, and eventually the ability to carry out even simple tasks.

Delirium is a state of temporary but acute mental confusion that comes on suddenly. Symptoms may include anxiety, disorientation, tremors, hallucinations, delusions, and incoherence. Delirium can occur in older persons who have short-term illnesses, heart or lung disease, long-term infections, poor nutrition, or hormone disorders. Alcohol or drugs (including medications) also may cause confusion.

Delirium may be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Depression can occur in older persons, especially those with physical problems. Symptoms include sadness, inactivity, difficulty thinking and concentrating, and feelings of despair. Depressed persons often have trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, fatigue, and agitation. Depression usually can be treated successfully.

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

In Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, problems with memory, judgment, and thought processes make it hard for a person to work and take part in day-to-day family and social life. Changes in mood and personality also may occur. These changes can result in loss of self-control and other problems.

Some 2 to 4 million persons have dementia associated with aging. Of these individuals, as many as two-thirds have Alzheimer's disease.

Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease at this time, it may be possible to relieve some of the symptoms, such as wandering and incontinence.

The earlier the diagnosis, the more likely your symptoms will respond to treatment. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you think you or a family member may have signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Research is under way to find better ways to treat Alzheimer's disease. Ask your doctor if there are any new developments that might help you.

Who Is Affected?

The chances of getting Alzheimer's disease increase with age. It usually occurs after age 65. Most people are not affected even at advanced ages. There are only two definite factors that increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease: a family history of dementia and Down syndrome.

Family History of Dementia

Some forms of Alzheimer's disease are inherited. If Alzheimer's disease has occurred in your family members, other members are more likely to develop it. Discuss any family history of dementia with your family doctor.

Down Syndrome

Persons with Down syndrome have a higher chance of getting Alzheimer's disease. Close relatives of persons with Down syndrome also may be at risk.

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