Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and cognition — the ability to think and reason.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia among older adults. Most people with this disorder will begin to show symptoms in their mid-sixties, according to the National Institute on Aging. (1)
While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there is medication that can improve symptoms for a time.
Scientists are working to understand the biological pathways behind Alzheimer’s disease, with the goal of finding new and better treatments.
Researchers are also attempting to identify any measures that could help delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, including drugs therapies and nondrug interventions. (1)
Alzheimer’s and the Brain
Alzheimer’s disease is named for a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist named Alois Alzheimer. While conducting a postmortem in 1906, the doctor noticed abnormalities in the brain of a woman with a mysterious illness that caused memory loss, language problems, unpredictable behavior, and ultimately death.
The woman’s brain, Alzheimer reported, had many abnormal protein clumps (now called amyloid plaques) as well as tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles). Those clumps and tangles are today considered the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease causes nerve cells (neurons) to stop functioning, lose their connections with other neurons, and die.
Typically, the damage first affects the parts of the brain that form memories. Eventually neurons in other areas of the brain also begin to die, causing the brain to shrink.
By the final stage of the disease, a person’s brain tissue will have shrunk significantly. (1)
The Role of Plaques and Tangles
Scientists aren’t completely sure about why neurons die and tissue shrinks in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, but they strongly suspect that amyloid plaques and tau tangles are the cause.
Plaques form when pieces of a protein called beta-amyloid clump together. Researchers are beginning to think that groups of a few pieces of beta-amyloid, rather than plaques, may cause the worst damage by blocking the chemical signals neurons use to communicate.
In healthy brain tissue, tau protects the transport systems that supply cells with nutrients and other important substances. But when tau forms tangles, cells can’t get the essentials they need and begin to die, according to the Alzheimer's Association. (2)
Causes and Risk Factors of Alzheimer’s Disease
What causes Alzheimer’s? That is the billion-dollar question of dementia research. Scientists have made progress in understanding what happens in the brain as the disease progresses, but they still don’t know just what kicks off these changes.
Researchers believe that the vast majority of Alzheimer’s cases are due to some combination of genetics, lifestyle, and environment. Risk factors include:
- Age Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging, with many people entering their nineties with their cognitive abilities intact. But age increases risk: Most people with the disease are 65 and older. After 65, risk doubles every five years. Nearly one-third of people who are 85 and older have Alzheimer’s.
- Family History Having a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling with the disease is a strong risk factor. This may reflect shared genetics, environmental factors, or both.
- Genetics Scientists have identified over 20 genes involved with Alzheimer’s, although only one gene variant, called APOE-e4, appears to significantly raise risk. Still, some people with the APOE-e4 gene never develop Alzheimer’s, while others who develop Alzheimer’s don’t have the gene. (5,6)
Risk factors for Alzheimer’s that may be somewhat under a person’s control include:
- Head Injury Researchers have identified a link between traumatic brain injury and different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Wearing a seat belt in a car or a helmet while playing certain kinds of sports, or minimizing fall risks in the home can offer protection.
- Cardiovascular Problems When the heart or blood vessels are damaged or diseased, the body is unable to pump enough blood to the brain, depriving cells of the oxygen they need to function. Conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes may raise risk.
- Poor Overall Health Researchers believe that poor overall health (linked to habits like smoking, for instance) may increase Alzheimer’s risk. (5)
Learn More About Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease: Common Risk Factors, Genetics, and More
How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosed?
There is no single Alzheimer’s test that can determine if a person has the disease. Instead, doctors may use a number of diagnostic methods, per the Alzheimer's Association: (8)
- Medical history
- Physical exam and diagnostic tests
- Neurological exam
- Mental status tests
- Brain imaging
Healthcare practitioners ask about current and past illnesses and medication, and inquire about health issues affecting family members, such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Physical Exam and Diagnostic Tests
Doctors listen to the heart and lungs and examine other relevant areas. They may also collect blood and urine samples for lab testing and perform additional assessments to help identify ailments (like depression, untreated sleep apnea, delirium, certain vitamin deficiencies, side effects of medication, thyroid problems, and excess alcohol use) that may cause dementia-like symptoms.
A neurological exam that tests strength, sensation, reflexes, and eye movements can evaluate for medical conditions that may lead to impaired memory and cognition, like strokes or Parkinson’s disease.
Mental Status Tests
This testing assesses memory, ability to solve simple problems, and other cognitive skills. During a test called the Mini-Cog, for instance, the person is asked to remember and, a few minutes later, repeat the names of three common objects. The doctor will also ask questions to determine whether the person has a mood disorder that can cause symptoms that mimic Alzheimer’s dementia.
A brain scan, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scans, could be used to rule out the presence of a tumor or another abnormality that might be responsible for Alzheimer’s-like symptoms.
Learn More About Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease: Tests and Screenings, Early Diagnosis, and Your Doctors
Duration of Alzheimer’s Disease
The brain changes that result in Alzheimer’s disease may begin a decade or more before the first symptoms appear, as amyloid plaques and tau tangles start to form, neurons die, and other toxic changes in the brain begin to occur. (1)
After diagnosis, a person with Alzheimer’s will live, on average, from four to eight years, though some survive for as long as 20 years, notes the Alzheimer's Association. (10)
Treatment and Medication Options for Alzheimer’s Disease
While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, treatments can slow cognitive decline for a limited time, manage behavioral symptoms, and provide relief for symptoms like anxiety and depression.
Before healthcare providers prescribe medication, they generally start with nonpharmaceutical approaches. Counseling, involvement in a support group, and activities like dancing that combine social, mental, and physical engagement can all have a positive effect on mind and body, notes the Alzheimer's Society. (11)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a small number of Alzheimer’s drugs, which are believed to work by altering levels of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain.
Doctors may also prescribe drugs for people experiencing behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as depression, aggression, restlessness, and anxiety.
Research efforts on new Alzheimer’s treatments have been frustrating, with promising possibilities failing in clinical trials. But scientists are continuing to explore new interventions, according to the National Institute on Aging. (12)
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Despite the growing number of herbal remedies, dietary supplements, and “medical foods” aimed at people with Alzheimer’s, there is no scientific proof that any of these products work.
For instance, some people with Alzheimer’s consume coconut oil based on the theory that the caprylic acid in the oil can provide energy to brain cells that are no longer able to metabolize glucose. But there has been no research confirming that this helps cognition, notes the Alzheimer's Association. (13)
Learn More About Treatment for Alzheimer’s: Medication, Alternative and Complementary Therapies, and More
Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease
Can a healthy lifestyle reduce Alzheimer’s risk? A growing body of research suggests it can.
For instance, a study published in July 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who were genetically predisposed to develop Alzheimer’s reduced their risk by 32 percent by pursuing a healthy lifestyle that involved:
- Not smoking
- Exercising regularly
- Eating a healthy diet
- Consuming alcohol only moderately (15)
Learn More About Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease: Exercise, Diet, and More
Research and Statistics: How Many People Have Alzheimer’s?
An estimated 5.8 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s dementia. This number includes 5.6 million people who are 65 or older and 200,000 who are younger than 65.
That means 1 in 10 Americans who are 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia.
As the number of older Americans rises, reflecting advances in medicine and the aging of the baby boomers, the number of people with Alzheimer’s is expected to shoot up.
Barring any significant medical breakthroughs, an estimated 13.8 million Americans age 65 and older will have Alzheimer’s dementia by the year 2050, notes the Alzheimer's Association. (16)
Related Conditions and Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease
It is very common for people with Alzheimer’s disease to simultaneously experience brain abnormalities related to other types of dementia, a condition called mixed dementia.
Other types of dementia include:
- Vascular Dementia The most prevalent type of mixed dementia involves Alzheimer’s combined with vascular dementia, in which brain cells are deprived of essential nutrients and oxygen because of conditions that block or reduce blood flow to the brain.
- Lewy Body Dementia. People with Alzheimer’s may also simultaneously experience Lewy body dementia, a disease marked by abnormal clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein in brain cells.
Some people may simultaneously experience brain changes related to all three conditions — Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, and Lewy body dementia — according to the Alzheimer's Association. (18)
Living With Alzheimer’s
Preserving quality of life for as long as possible is an achievable goal for a person with Alzheimer’s. The key is having strategies in place to maximize independence, minimize frustration, and build feelings of confidence and emotional connection that help make every day the best it can be.
Routines can ease the burden of short-term memory loss for people in the earlier stages of dementia. If you have Alzheimer’s, you might feel calmer and more in control knowing that your house keys are always on a hook by the door, for instance, or that your caregiver always records appointments on a wall calendar.
As the disease progresses, patients have more difficulty verbalizing their wants and needs to others. If you are a caregiver, there are strategies that can help you and the person you care for meet this challenge.
Keeping the mood positive, reducing distractions like TV, and making your questions easy to answer with a “yes” or “no” can all make a huge difference. Sometimes body language and nonverbal cues can express what words no longer are able to, notes the Family Caregiver Alliance. (19)
Learn More About Living With Alzheimer’s: Routines, Accident-Proofing, Communication Tips, and More
Early-onset Alzheimer’s describes Alzheimer’s dementia that affects people younger than 65.
An estimated 7 to 12 percent of these patients have inherited specific gene mutations (defects) from a parent. Scientists have identified around 500 families around the world with this particular type of familial Alzheimer’s.
For everyone else with early-onset Alzheimer’s, the same risk factors as those for late-onset Alzheimer’s come into play: genetics, lifestyle, and environmental influences interacting in complicated and still not clearly understood ways. (7)
Learn More About Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
Resources We Love
Patients with Alzheimer’s and their families have access to resources that can provide urgently needed help.
The U.S. federal government offers assistance via online portals like Alzheimers.gov that provide information on how to connect with healthcare professionals, support services, research studies looking for participants, and other opportunities.
The Alzheimer’s Association, a leading nonprofit, is an invaluable resource. The organization operates a 24/7 toll-free helpline (800-272-3900) as well as message boards to help those affected by the disease find community.
There are also organizations that focus on one particular challenge. NeedyMeds, for instance, provides support for patients who can’t afford prescription medication.
Learn More About Additional Resources and Support for People With Alzheimer's
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet. National Institute on Aging. May 22, 2019.
- Inside the Brain: A Tour of How the Brain Works, Part 2: Alzheimer’s Effect. Alzheimer’s Association.
- Mild Cognitive Impairment. Mayo Clinic. August 23, 2018.
- Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s Society. 2019.
- What Is Alzheimer’s Disease? Causes and Risk Factors. Alzheimer’s Association.
- Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Fact Sheet. National Institute on Aging. December 24, 2019.
- What Causes Young-Onset Dementia? Alzheimer’s Society.
- Diagnosis: Medical Tests. Alzheimer’s Association.
- Clinical Stages of Alzheimer’s. Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation.
- What Is Alzheimer’s Disease? Alzheimer’s Association.
- Treatment and Support of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s Society.
- How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Treated? National Institute on Aging. April 1, 2018.
- Alternative Treatments. Alzheimer’s Association.
- Alzheimer’s Stages: How the Disease Progresses. Mayo Clinic. April 19, 2019.
- Association of Lifestyle and Genetic Risk With Incidence of Dementia. Journal of the American Medical Association. July 14, 2019.
- Alzheimer’s and Dementia Facts and Figures. Alzheimer’s Association.
- Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease: What Is the Difference? Alzheimer’s Association.
- Mixed Dementia. Alzheimer’s Association.
- Caregiver’s Guide to Understanding Dementia Behaviors. Family Caregiver Alliance. 2016.