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What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer’s Disease vs. Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia—a general term for loss of memory, language, and other thinking abilities). Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Unlike occasional forgetfulness, dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease is severe enough to interfere with you or your loved one’s everyday life. 

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that has no cure. The large majority of Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses occur in people ages 65 and up. However, it may occur earlier in rare cases.

Why Choose U of U Health? 

At University of Utah Health Cognitive Disorders Clinic, we understand the challenges that come with an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and the impact it can have on you and your entire family. 

Our multidisciplinary team of physicians, nurse practitioners, social workers, and neuropsychologists come together to find solutions that work for you or your loved one’s memory and thinking needs. Our goal is to make an accurate diagnosis and treat you as early as possible to give you or your loved one a better quality of life.

Alzheimer's Disease Symptoms

Some of the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • difficulty remembering newly learned information;
  • confusion with knowing the current time, place, and situation;
  • shortened attention span;
  • losing or misplacing items;
  • increased sleeping;
  • personality or mood changes;
  • losing initiative for activities once performed or enjoyed; and
  • problems coping in new situations.

In later stages, severe Alzheimer’s disease will cause the following symptoms:

  • loss of language and ability to communicate, 
  • loss of bladder or bowel control,
  • weight loss,
  • seizures,
  • difficulty swallowing, and
  • difficulty completing common tasks that were once familiar (e.g., driving, performing job duties, doing finances, managing medications, etc.).

Alzheimer's Disease Stages

As symptoms and stages may overlap, it’s difficult to place an individual into one stage. Stages of Alzheimer’s disease may appear in the following ways:

  • Mild dementia—As Alzheimer's disease progresses, memory and cognitive problems may begin to effect daily life and performing activities. 
  • Mild cognitive impairmentYou or your loved one may begin to struggle with memory, thinking, judgment, or language.
  • Moderate dementia—Memory loss, confusion, and poor judgment may increase. This indicates the disease has progressed to a moderate stage. 
  • Severe dementiaAn individual with severe dementia may be unable to care for themselves or perform regular activities without assistance. Symptoms may not only impact their memory and thinking, but will also cause physical impairments in their bowel or bladder control or ability to stay awake. 

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Alzheimer's Disease Causes

Research is ongoing as scientists and doctors continue to study the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Current data shows that a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors may play a role in developing the disease. 

Risk factors include:

  • Age—This does not directly cause Alzheimer’s, but it is the greatest known risk factor for developing it. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, your risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 65. 
  • Family historyYou’re more likely to develop Alzheimer’s if a parent or sibling also has the disease. The more people in your family who have Alzheimer’s, the higher your risk.
  • History of brain injuries—There is a link between head injuries and later risk of dementia. 
  • Unhealthy lifestylesAn unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and frequent tobacco and alcohol intake will increase your risk for Alzheimer’s. 
  • Other health conditionsHeart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and untreated sleep apnea have been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s.
Picture of elderly Asian woman in a wheelchair doing arts and crafts outside

Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosis

The most definitive way to confirm Alzheimer’s is by testing someone’s brain tissue during an autopsy after death. However, patients who have one or more of the varying symptoms of the illness will be diagnosed with “probable Alzheimer’s disease”. 

During the initial evaluation, we will ask questions about a patient’s cognitive decline, such as the types of cognitive problems they experience and the degree to which they impact their life. We ask that a family member, friend, or caregiver who is familiar with the patient’s symptoms accompany them. New patient visits and return visits typically last about one hour. 

We may perform one or more of the following tests to make a diagnosis:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—An MRI uses a computer, radio frequency, and a magnetic field to create pictures of the inside of your body. MRIs may reveal abnormalities in different areas of the brain, indicating cognitive impairment associated with Alzheimer’s. 
  • Positron emission tomography (PET scan)—This scan uses small amounts of radioactive dye to allow neurologists to see inside your body. PET scans help to identify certain plaques in the brain that are indicators of Alzheimer’s. Your provider may order a FDG-PET scan to show the metabolism of glucose in different parts of the brain. This helps identify a pattern of under-functioning associated with Alzheimer’s disease or frontotemporal dementia.
  • Neuropsychological testing—We use a variety of neuropsychological tests to assess memory, reasoning, problem-solving, and other functioning. You may be asked to answer questions, write, draw, or respond to items on a computer. 

Prognosis of Alzheimer's Disease

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The disease will become worse over time and is fatal. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that most people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will live for four to eight more years after their diagnosis, but that time may vary.

Alzheimer's Disease Treatment

There currently are no medications or surgical procedures that will reverse or slow down the brain changes that occur with Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are two categories of medications that can help to improve cognition temporarily. 

Alzheimer's Disease Prevention

There is no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However, research shows you can reduce your risk for developing the disease by living a healthy lifestyle and reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. To lower your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, we recommend:

  • at least 30 minutes of exercise per day,
  • seven to nine hours of sleep per night, and
  • eating a well-balanced diet, such as the Mediterranean diet

How to Schedule a Cognitive Disorder Evaluation

If you or a loved one are having trouble with memory, language, or daily activities, talk about your symptoms with your primary care provider. You will need a referral from your primary care provider or neurologist to visit our clinic for evaluation. Call 801-585-7575 to schedule an appointment or to learn more about our program. 

Refer a Patient

To refer a patient to the Cognitive Disorders Clinic, please complete this referral form and fax all related clinical notes and diagnostic reports to us at 801-585-2746.

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