Alzheimer’s Tennessee, Inc. – Support, Education and Research for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias
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Alzheimer's Disease: The Basics

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) Defined

What Everybody Needs to Know

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia. It is a progressive and terminal disease that starts in the brain, destroying memory and thinking skills and eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks of daily living.

In most people with AD, symptoms first appear after age 60. The changes typically occur slowly, over months and years not hours and days.

If the person has a sudden change in health status, living situation or caregiver system (for example, death of a spouse) he or she may APPEAR to change quickly. The brain has actually been changing slowly but since the person was in a routine, the person’s abilities weren’t being challenged and he or she was relying on OLD patterns and memories to function.

The pattern and progression of the disease is predictable BUT the experience is individual and ultimately, the person’s entire life is affected by AD.

AD usually starts in a region of the brain that affects recent memory, then gradually spreads to other parts of the brain. Although treatment can slow the progression of AD and help manage its symptoms in some people, currently there is no cure for this devastating disease.

AD is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer described changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles).

Today, these plaques and tangles in the brain are considered hallmarks of AD. The third main feature of AD is the gradual loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. This loss leads to diminished cell function and cell death.

How are Dementia and Alzheimer’s Different from “Normal Aging” and Forgetfulness?

Normal aging includes being more forgetful, taking longer to learn new information, requiring more practice to learn new skills or technologies (you can do it, just have to try harder than before), having more trouble recalling people’s names, and knowing the word you want but hesitating.

It is not uncommon to lose or forget things every now and then. But, if memory problems get in the way of everyday living, it may be time to call for more information or to see a doctor.

Note the differences between the Warning Signs and signs of “normal aging” on the Warning Signs (Symptoms) page.