Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is an age-related, non-reversible brain disorder that develops over a period of years. Initially, people experience memory loss and confusion, which may be mistaken for the kinds of memory changes that are sometimes associated with normal aging. However, the symptoms of AD gradually lead to behavior and personality changes, a decline in cognitive abilities such as decision-making and language skills, and problems recognizing family and friends. AD ultimately leads to a severe loss of mental function. These losses are related to the worsening breakdown of the connections between certain neurons in the brain and their eventual death. AD is one of a group of disorders called dementias that are characterized by cognitive and behavioral problems. It is the most common cause of dementia among people age 65 and older.
There are three major hallmarks in the brain that are associated with the disease processes of AD.
- Amyloid plaques, which are made up of fragments of a protein called beta-amyloid peptide mixed with a collection of additional proteins, remnants of neurons, and bits and pieces of other nerve cells.
- Neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs), found inside neurons, are abnormal collections of a protein called tau. Normal tau is required for healthy neurons. However, in AD, tau clumps together. As a result, neurons fail to function normally and eventually die.
- Loss of connections between neurons responsible for memory and learning. Neurons can’t survive when they lose their connections to other neurons. As neurons die throughout the brain, the affected regions begin to atrophy, or shrink. By the final stage of AD, damage is widespread and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.
Currently there are no medicines that can slow the progression of AD. However, four FDA-approved medications are used to treat AD symptoms. These drugs help individuals carry out the activities of daily living by maintaining thinking, memory, or speaking skills. They can also help with some of the behavioral and personality changes associated with AD. However, they will not stop or reverse AD and appear to help individuals for only a few months to a few years. Donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), and galantamine (Razadyne) are prescribed to treat mild to moderate AD symptoms. Donepezil was recently approved to treat severe AD as well. The newest AD medication is memantine (Namenda), which is prescribed to treat moderate to severe AD symptoms.
In very few families, people develop AD in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. This is known as "early onset" AD. These individuals have a mutation in one of three different inherited genes that causes the disease to begin at an earlier age. More than 90 percent of AD develops in people older than 65. This form of AD is called "late-onset" AD, and its development and pattern of damage in the brain is similar to that of early-onset AD. The course of this disease varies from person to person, as does the rate of decline. In most people with AD, symptoms first appear after age 65. We don't yet completely understand the causes of late-onset AD, but they probably include genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Although the risk of developing AD increases with age, AD and dementia symptoms are not a part of normal aging. There are also some forms of dementia that aren't related to brain diseases such as AD, but are caused by systemic abnormalities such as metabolic syndrome, in which the combination of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes causes confusion and memory loss.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) supports basic and translational research related to AD through grants to major medical institutions across the country. Current studies are investigating how the development of beta amyloid plaques damages neurons, and how abnormalities in tau proteins create the characteristic neurofibrillary tangles of AD. Other research is exploring the impact of risk factors associated with the development of AD, such as pre-existing problems with blood flow in the blood vessels of the brain. Most importantly, the NINDS supports a number of studies that are developing and testing new and novel therapies that can relieve the symptoms of AD and potentially lead to a cure. On May 15, 2012 the Obama Administration announced the release of the National Alzheimer’s Plan. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius reaffirmed our nation’s commitment to conquering Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, with a specific goal of finding effective ways to prevent and treat the disease by 2025. Information from the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlusAlzheimer's DiseaseAlzheimer's Caregivers
Alzheimer's Disease Educationand Referral Center (ADEAR)
National Institute on Aging
Building 31, Room 5C27
Bethesda, MD 20892-2292
Alzheimer's Foundation of America
322 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10001
Works to provide optimal care and services to individuals confronting dementia and to their caregivers and families through member organizations dedicated to improving quality of life.
Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation
57 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Public charity whose mission is to accelerate the discovery and development of drugs to prevent, treat, and cure Alzheimer's disease, related dementias, and cognitive aging.
Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD)
Radnor Station Building #2, Suite 320
290 King of Prussia Road
Radnor, PA 19087
Nonprofit organization that promotes and funds research into finding the cause and cure for frontotemporal degeneration, also called frontotemporal dementia (FTD); provides information, education, and support to those affected by FTD and their caregivers; and sponsors professional health education programs related to FTD.
22512 Gateway Center Drive
Clarksburg, MD 20871
Non-profit charitable organization dedicated to funding research and educating the public on Alzheimer's disease, glaucoma, and macular degeneration.
Caregiver Action Network
1150 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Grassroots organization dedicated to supporting and improving the lives of America's family caregivers. Created to educate, support, empower, and advocate for the millions of Americans who care for their ill, aged, or disabled loved ones.
John Douglas French Alzheimer's Foundation
1191 Brookmere Road
Pasadena, CA 91105-3301
Provides seed money for novel and innovative Alzheimer's research at major California universities. Unsolicited applications and/or letters of inquiry not accepted.
National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization/Natl. Hospice Foundation
1731 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Non-profit membership organization representing hospice and palliative care programs and professionals. Provides free referrals to the public for hospice listings across the United States and internationally. Distributes free packets of general information describing hospice services and the Medicare Hospice Benefit.
National Respite Network and Resource Center
800 Eastowne Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Information and referral service that assists and promotes the development of quality respite and crisis care programs; helps families locate respite and crisis care services in their communities; and sponsors advocacy and awareness efforts concerning respite care.
Well Spouse Association
63 West Main Street
Freehold, NJ 07728
International non-profit, volunteer-based organization whose mission is to provide emotional support to, raise consciousness about, and advocate for the spouses/partners of the chronically ill and/or disabled.
Information sourced through CNF’s partnership with The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), US National Institutes of Health.