image by Maureen Didde (lic)Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is the most frequent cause of dementia. For many decades, people thought that "senility" was a natural part of getting older; consequently, AD did not receive much attention as a real medical disorder. It is now considered a major public health problem that is causing serious issues for families and society. According to the National Institutes on Aging, the cost of caring for all of the people in the US with AD is about $100 billion every year.
Alzheimer's Disease is not a normal part of aging or "just what happens when we get old." If AD was part of the natural aging process, we'd have a very large group of people (every person over 65) walking around today with this disorder! As we age, we do experience minor changes in memory and thinking. But, these changes do not seriously impair our daily functioning or our ability to live independently and take care of ourselves. There are several differences between normal aging and Alzheimer's Disease:
- Forgetfulness - People aging normally might forget part of an experience (I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday). People with Alzheimer's Disease will forget the entire experience (I can't remember yesterday morning at all).
- Remembering - People aging normally may forget something (such as a movie recommendation for a friend), but they will eventually recall the desired information (e.g., later in the evening or the next day). People with Alzheimer's will not recall the information at a later time.
- Comprehension - People aging normally can usually follow verbal or written instructions with no problem (e.g., filling out a sweepstakes entry or following a recipe). People with Alzheimer's Disease become less and less able to follow instructions (or multiple step directions) as the disease progresses.
- Memory Aids - People aging normally will usually benefit from using notes and other reminders (e.g., a grocery list). People with Alzheimer's gradually become less able to benefit from memory aids (e.g., they will forget that they have a list, or forget how to use the list).
- Self-Care - People aging normally may be stiff or have some aches and pains, but they can still complete personal care tasks (e.g., bathing, dressing, styling hair, going to the bathroom, etc.). People with Alzheimer's lose the ability to perform these kinds of tasks because they cannot remember the steps involved, and eventually, they won't remember when these tasks are appropriate.
There are different terms that health care professionals use to further specify different types of Alzheimer's Disease. "Familial AD" runs in families (i.e., is passed on from generation to generation). Individuals who develop AD before age 65 are said to have "early-onset Alzheimer's Disease." Early-onset familial Alzheimer's Disease is the most aggressive form of AD; those affected by it suffer a swifter cognitive decline than individuals with late-onset Alzheimer's Disease (occurring after age 65).