What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Alzheimer's disease is a neurodegenerative disease that, over the course of seven to ten years, renders its sufferers unable to remember much about their lives, recognize their loved ones, engage in coordinated movement, speak properly, or use the toilet on their own. The disease probably does not kill people directly, but impairs their ability to take care of themselves, making them much more susceptible to other ailments and consequently leading to their death. The disease starts with a mild forgetfulness, which gets progressively worse until most of the mental faculties that people usually associate with personality and intelligence are destroyed.

Alzheimer's disease impairs a person's ability to care for himself or herself.
Alzheimer's disease impairs a person's ability to care for himself or herself.

In most cases, Alzheimer's disease strikes between the ages of 65 and 85, and afflicts as many as a third of all people who reach the latter end of this age range. Incidence among 65 year-olds is only 2-3%, but spikes to 25-50% among 85 year-olds. It is found less frequently in those older than 85, because people predisposed to the disease will usually have already died.

Scientists hope stem cell research can lead to a cure for Alzheimer's.
Scientists hope stem cell research can lead to a cure for Alzheimer's.

Because elderly people suffer from various forms of senility, it wasn’t until 1906 that Alzheimer's was identified as an independent entity with its own symptoms and pathology. The condition is not contagious, but emerges in people later in life based on their genetics and certain risk factors, such as smoking and inadequate exercise. Though the original cause of the disease was thought to be failure in the production of the essential neurotransmitter acetylcholine, modern experts tend to focus on the buildup of an extracellular plaque called beta amyloid.

Risk of Alzheimer's increases with age.
Risk of Alzheimer's increases with age.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, and it is very hard to prevent it. Because the disease is so common, thousands of studies center on it, many careers are built on it, and billions of dollars have been spent in attempts to stop it, but all of this activity has led to little real success. Some scientists are hopeful that stem cell research will lead to a true cure. Others look to bacteria specialized to dissolve amyloid plaque but not surrounding tissue, which might be found in graveyards where they have adapted over thousands of generations to digest nutrients in decaying human brains. If this disease continues to prove stubborn, researchers may have to wait for medical nanotechnology so that the plaque can be removed directly to target the root cause.

Research suggests that brain fitness reduces the risk of dementia in elderly people.
Research suggests that brain fitness reduces the risk of dementia in elderly people.
Reading is a good way to stay mentally active, which is important for managing Alzheimer's disease.
Reading is a good way to stay mentally active, which is important for managing Alzheimer's disease.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


How do you know when someone is just getting forgetful or has symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?

We have been seeing signs of forgetfulness in my dad for several months now and it seems to be getting worse. He doesn't see any problem at all, and won't have anything checked out. I think this would be a scary thing to think you might have this disease, but I would rather know for sure than just wondering or not doing anything about it.


There are two people in my immediate and extended family that I know of who have had Alzheimer's disease. Both of these people are on my moms side of the family and getting Alzheimer's is one of her greatest fears. She said she doesn't mind so much getting old as long as she doesn't lose her mind.

Both of my parents are close to being 85 and are in good health. It will be encouraging to her knowing once you make it to this age without having Alzheimer's disease, your chances of getting it are much less.

I feel very fortunate that my parents are as healthy as they are at their age. Not only are they busy and active physically but their minds are very sharp and active as well.


I know that exercise is important for our overall health, but never realized that inadequate exercise could be a risk factor for Alzheimer's. This motivates me to stick with my exercise program and do it even on the many days when I don't feel like it.

I have an aunt who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease and she was in her early 60's. Her mom also had this disease at a young age so I am sure that was also a big risk factor for my aunt. In a matter of a few years she has gone from living in her home to a nursing home. She no longer recognizes anyone who comes to visit her which is really hard for her family to deal with.


@Beg-- Many times dementia and Alzheimer's disease are linked in the same category, but they are different. When someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer's it is usually after several specific tests have been run.

There are some newer medications out there that do help some with the symptoms of this terrible disease. I know a lady who was able to stay in her home and remain coherent much longer than she would have been had she not been on one of these newer medications.

Even though there is little that can be done to prevent this once it has been diagnosed, you can take advantage of some treatment programs that can help diminish some of the symptoms.


@betterment - Yes, that is really scary. My mother is almost 60, and I definitely don't consider her "old." I can't imagine how awful it would be if she got something like Alzheimer's in the next 5 years!

Anyway, until I read this article I had no idea that Alzheimer's disease itself isn't fatal. I always thought that the disease itself was what actually killed the person, but I guess that isn't true at all. So people with this illness could potentially live for quite some time after their diagnosis.


I didn't realize that symptoms of Alzheimer's disease could manifest as young as 65! These days, a lot of people in their 60's are quite active, and not what I would consider "old." How sad that a disease that causes dementia can affect people who are that young.

@eidetic - I think most people are really hoping for a way to cure Alzheimer's disease symptoms. Alzheimer's affects so many people that almost everyone I know has lost someone to the illness.

I personally lost one of my great aunts to Alzheimer's a few years ago, and it was really sad to watch the progression of the illness. At first we just thought she was getting a little forgetful, but eventually the symptoms got to be so bad we took her to the doctor and she got diagnosed. By the time she passed away, she didn't recognize anyone, not even her husband of forty plus years!


@sputnik - I love red wine, so this is great news for me. It seems to be great for all kinds of disease prevention, including heart disease and I guess Alzheimer's too.

That being said, I hope scientists are able to find a cure for Alzheimer's soon, so we don't have to rely on prevention alone.


A study done on mice with red wine, shows promising results in reduction of Alzheimer's disease. It seems that people with Alzheimer's disease have plaque buildup in the brain. Moderate consumption of red wine, and the emphasis is on moderate, in this case Cabernet, significantly reduced the buildup.

Of course it will take more time and studies to figure out how this process will work with humans.


What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimers and how is a diagnosis made? What medication is available for halting the progression of Alzheimers?

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