As you age, it’s common for your memory to get a little rusty and for you to become more forgetful. But, memory loss that disrupts day-to-day life is not a typical part of getting older. So how do you know the difference?
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease that worsens over time, is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. The director of the UCSF Fresno Alzheimer & Memory Center, Dr. Loren Alving, explains, “It’s a neurodegenerative disorder that causes people to lose their ability to remember and it eventually affects the rest of the brain and causes a variety of other symptoms.”
Dr. Alving said, “Alzheimer disease is the most common cause of dementia. So a lot of people use that term interchangeably – Alzheimer disease and dementia. Just because most of the people that have dementia have it due to Alzheimer disease – but there are other types of dementia.”
Dementia is not one specific disease. It’s a broad term – like heart disease – used to describe various symptoms of intellectual decline that affect your ability to perform everyday activities.
Living with Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s is usually categorized one of three ways – mild, moderate and severe. Memory loss is mild in the earlier stages of the disease and those in the severe stage usually lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment.
The average person lives about 4 to 8 years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, but some have been known to live as long as 20 years.
Warning signs of Alzheimer’s Disease
“Often the earliest symptoms are things like memory loss, forgetting things, forgetting conversations, forgetting recent important events, and getting lost is another big issue that often comes early,” Dr. Alving said.
Forgetfulness is also a typical sign of aging, but in most cases for someone who’s just experiencing an age-related change, they’ll remember the information later, rather than being unable to retain that short-term memory.
Other common warning signs to watch out for:
Challenges in following a plan or solving problems
Difficulty in completing familiar tasks
Confusion with time or place
Trouble understanding and seeing visual images
Trouble following or joining a conversation
Misplacing things and unable to retrace steps, or accusing others of stealing
Extreme poor judgement
Withdrawal from work or social activities
Changes in mood and personality
Getting lost when following a familiar route
If you or a loved one is experiencing any of the above symptoms, consult with your physician for further evaluation.
Is Alzheimer’s preventable?
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s or a way to stop or slow its progression. There are drug and non-drug options that may help treat symptoms and improve quality of life, but every case is different depending on the person and situation.
Dr. Alving says the most important thing to understand about Alzheimer's disease is that the changes in the brain usually start about 10 years before anyone shows symptoms. “So, there’s a long time that people kind of have silent changes,” she said. “It’s never too late to attempt to [physically] exercise, mentally exercise, diet and then the most important really is socialization --it’s important to keep that up and for the family to encourage that.”
Learn more about current treatment options.