Health Guide

Alzheimer's disease

What is it?

Alzheimer's (alls-hi-mers) disease (AD) is a long term brain disease. With AD, brain cells die and do not come back. There are also fewer amounts of the normal chemicals in the brain. These chemicals carry messages back and forth between the nerve cells throughout the body. This causes problems with how you think, behave, and remember things. The disease cannot be stopped or reversed. There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease.

The disease usually starts about 65 to 70 years, but can start earlier. In its later stages, a person may need 24-hour care for feeding, personal care, and bathroom needs. AD usually lasts 2 to 10 years, but it can take 20 years before a person dies from AD.


It is not known what causes AD. The risk of getting AD increases with age but AD is not a normal part of aging. AD is probably not caused by any one factor by itself. People who have one or more of the following factors may have a greater risk of getting AD.

  • Environmental factors. Scientists have found metals like aluminum and zinc in the brain tissue of people with AD. They are studying these metals to see if they caused the AD. They are also looking to see if the metals build up in the brain because of the disease.
  • Genetic (inherited) factors (something you are born with). Scientists believe that more than half of the people with AD inherited it. A protein called ApoE, which normally carries cholesterol in the blood, may cause AD. Everyone has ApoE, but one type of ApoE seems to protect a person from getting AD. Another type of ApoE seems to make it more likely to get the disease. Scientists are learning more about ApoE and other genetic factors that increase your chance of getting AD. Scientists are also studying how having high cholesterol increases your risk of getting AD. Brain cells affected by AD often have high levels of a protein. This causes plaques (plaks) and tangles in the brain.
  • Injuries like a head injury or a heart attack.
  • Viruses. Scientists have found changes in the brain tissue of people with AD. They are studying different viruses to see if they cause changes in brain tissue that might cause AD.
  • Women seem to get AD more than men.

Signs and Symptoms:

AD is a slow disease and is different for each person. Some people may only have the disease for 5 years while others may have it for 20 years. Early signs may be missed because they look like normal aging signs. The following are the 3 stages of Alzheimer's disease.

  • Stage 1 lasts from 1 to 3 years. Memory loss is the most common sign. You may be able to remember what happened years ago, but may not remember things from yesterday. Things that happen seem to be happening for the first time. You may be confused about what month or season it is. You may forget to brush your teeth or comb your hair. You may not remember the names of common things or people. You may feel like you have to make up stories to hide your forgetfulness. Walking may become harder for you. It may be hard to work on your checkbook or to take care of your house. You may find it hard to make decisions that were once easy. You may not be as interested in doing things. You may feel depressed, angry, or confused about the changes you notice.
  • Stage 2 lasts up to 10 years. You may have problems choosing what clothes to wear or doing simple jobs. Feeding yourself, brushing your teeth, or shaving may be hard. Taking care of your body may no longer seem important. You may not know familiar people. Things that happen seem to be happening for the first time. You may become loud, violent, and hard to control. Sleeping, pacing, or wandering off may cause problems because you are confused. You may seem anxious, restless, and agitated at night. This is often called "sundowning." It may be hard to find words to say what you mean. Talking in normal sentences may give you problems. Your speech may be hard to understand. You may quickly change topics when you are talking. You may seem depressed or worried. You may be happy at unusual times. You may put things in strange places and not remember where you put them. You may be unable to make choices and decisions. It may be hard to reason or solve problems. Or, you may be unable to plan and follow through with activities. You may find it hard to control your emotions. Sometimes you may act like a child because you cannot control your anger. You may not be able to wait to get what you want. You may get more tired because everything takes more effort and energy. You may think that something is true even though it is not. You may see things that are not actually there. Sometimes you may not be able to control your urine.
  • Stage 3 lasts from 8 to 12 years. You will completely lose your memory and speech. Groups of your muscles will stop working, including those used for urinating and having a bowel movement (BM). It will be very hard to walk. Your behavior will change and you may become very angry and out of control. You may be aggressive and destroy things. With time, you will not be able to care for yourself and will need someone to take care of you.

Wellness Recommendations:

Eating healthy food, exercising, being with and talking to people, and keeping a routine are important. Regular walking can actually improve thinking for patients with AD. Aspirin may lower the risk of AD and heart disease.

Medical Care:

There is no cure for AD. The disease cannot be stopped or turned around. Treatment involves trying to keep a good quality of life for as long as possible. Medicine may be used to try to slow the early stages of the disease. It may also be used to treat anxiety, nervousness, sleep problems, or depression.

Dietary Measures:

Aluminum, a metal, may play a part in AD. Do not eat food or use products that have a high amount of aluminum.

Herbs and Supplements:

Before taking any herbs or supplements, ask your caregiver if it is OK. Talk to your caregiver about how much you should take. If you are using this medicine without instructions from your caregiver, follow the directions on the label. Do not take more medicine or take it more often than the directions tell you to. The herbs and supplements listed may or may not help treat your condition.


  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is helpful in AD when taken every day. Ginkgo should not be taken with aspirin (or anything else that thins the blood) as it can increase the risk of bleeding problems. When buying, be sure the label on the bottle says the product is a standardized extract containing 24% ginkgoflavonglycosides (ginkgosides) and 6% terpenes.
  • Ginseng (Panax ginseng) may improve thinking, but has not been studied in people who have AD.
  • Huperzine A (Huperzia serrata) , an extract from club moss, may be helpful.


  • 5 - HTP (5-hydroxy tryptophan) has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AD.
  • Acetyl L-carnitine may be helpful in AD.
  • B vitamins (vitamin B12 which is cyanocobalamin and folic acid) have been used, but have not been studied in people who have AD. If you are already taking a multivitamin or B complex supplement then it is not necessary to take additional B vitamins.
  • DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol) has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AD.
  • Inositol has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AD.
  • Phosphatidylserine may be a little helpful in AD.
  • Tyrosine , an amino acid, has been used, but has not been studied in people who have AD.
  • Vitamin E may slow AD.

Other ways of treating your symptoms : Other ways to treat your symptoms are available to you.

Talk to your caregiver if:

  • You would like medicine to treat AD.
  • Your symptoms have not gone away or improved by these self-help measures.
  • You have questions about what you have read in this document.


  • You are so depressed you feel you can not cope with your illness.

Care Agreement:

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care may be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment


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Last Updated: 1/27/2017
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