Archive for October, 2009

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Take the Alzheimer's Association's Brain Tour

Brain Tour from Alzheimer's Association (click image)

Just what is Alzheimer’s disease (AD)? Everyone seems to agree that it is the most common form of dementia accounting for at least half of all dementia cases. (See previous post on discussion of dementia). There is also agreement that in advanced Alzheimer’s disease, a person cannot function intellectually and socially. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Alzheimer’s disease is not a part of normal aging, but the risk of the disorder increases with age. About 5 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have Alzheimer’s disease, while nearly half the people over the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s.”

What is happening in the brain that is causing a person not to be able to function intellectually and socially? Take the “Brain Tour” on the left and notice the shrinkage of the brain as well as the tangles. Just looking at those pictures explains the confusion, doesn’t it?

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are currently three major areas that doctors depend on to make a diagnosis:

  1. Lab tests
  2. Neuropsychological testing (extensive assessment of thinking and memory skills)
  3. Brain scans
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
    • Computerized tomography (CT)
    • Positron emission tomography (PET)

Although memory assessments should always be conducted by a medical practitioner, here are two quick paper and pencil tests. The first was published by Times Online (UK) called the “Five Minute Alzheimer’s Test.” The second one is on the Web site of a well-known Alzheimer’s drug, but it states, “This screening tool cannot be used to tell if your loved one has a medical problem, only whether he or she should be tested.” It was adapted from Galvin JE, et al. The AD8, a brief informant interview to detect dementia. Neurology 2005:65:559-564.

Once again, do not draw any conclusions from these memory tests. As discussed by Carrie Hill, Ph.D. in “What you Need to Know about Screenings for Memory Problems,” she states:

  1. A memory screening should not be used to make a diagnosis
  2. A memory screening does not replace a diagnostic workup
  3. Memory screenings should only be performed by qualified professionals
  4. Memory screenings should be confidential and provide follow-up resources
  5. Memory screenings can be used to establish a baseline
  6. Opinions differ on the value of memory screenings. Here she talks about the different views of the two leading non-profit Alzheimer’s organizations — Alzheimer’s Foundation of America and Alzheimer’s Association.

In our next blog post next week, we will look at the most recent diagnosis tools. In the meantime, have you done your Sudoku for today?

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How is dementia different from Alzheimer’s disease? According to author Molly Shomer, she says that the term dementia seems to be preferred over Alzheimer’s disease possibly because of the less frightening connotation and that many are using the word interchangeably, but that is not correct. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are different.

Shomer says dementia is a symptom, just as pain is a symptom for something causing the pain. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, memory loss by itself does not mean you have dementia. People with dementia have serious problems with two or more brain functions, such as memory and language. Many different diseases can cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. Drugs are available to treat some of these diseases. For a list of other dementias from the Fischer Center for Alzheimer’s Foundation, click here.

So the actual cause of dementia could be one of a myriad of things where cognitive abilities have been impaired. With dementia, it could simply be a temporary thing if the cause is treated. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s is an actual disease and the disease causes dementia. Many different diseases can cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. Drugs are available to treat some of these diseases.

What we know about Alzheimer’s disease today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, is that:

  1. Alzheimer’s is a progressive and fatal brain disease.
  2. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia.
  3. Alzheimer’s has no current cure.

In our next post next week, we will specifically look at how Alzheimer’s disease is defined. In the meantime, challenge your brain to something new as was discussed here.

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AD InternationalOne of the greatest sources of information and a great starting point is the Alzheimer’s Association — If you accidentally type instead of, it will take you to another Web site full of resources, but it is not the official Alzheimer’s Association. There is also an international organization called, Alzheimer’s Disease International, and it is the umbrella organization of all Alzheimer’s Associations in the world. They sponsor World Alzheimer’s Day on September 21st.

Until this year, I had never heard of World Alzheimer’s Day and I did not know anything about Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) until I researched World Alzheimer’s Day. Alzheimer’s has not been in the forefront like cancer and this is where they need to get to. Remember how a few years ago there wasn’t much publicity about cancer either? Look where they are today. And it’s not the Amercian Cancer Society that you hear about, but the Susan G. Komen Foundation is everywhere. This is where Alzheimer’s needs to be … and no doubt, as more and more people are affected by Alzheimer’s and related dementias, they will get there … and funding will follow.

However, the point of this blog is to give you a starting point. While ADI’s aim is to build and strengthen Alzheimer associations (there are currently 71) and raise awareness about dementia worldwide, the Alzheimer’s Association’s mission is three-fold:

  1. To eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research
  2. To provide and enhance care and support for all affected
  3. To reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health

Their vision? A world without Alzheimer’s disease. A vision for us all!

There are many resources available and I’ll be presenting them as time goes on, but the most important thing to remember is that the Alzheimer’s Association has 24/7 help available at 1.800.272.3900. Someone who cares and understands is at the other end of that line.

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Alz logo_0002My 2010 calendar from the Alzheimer’s Association, National Capital Area Chapter has arrived along with a request for a donation. The accompanying letter contained an interesting timeline that I’d never seen before (or at least I didn’t remember it) and it made me realize how “young” the organization is. Let me share it with you.

  • 1979  Representatives from five family support groups meet to discuss forming a national Alzheimer’s Association.
  • 1980  The dream became a reality as the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association is legally incorporated.
  • 1982  Congress designates Thanksgiving Week, Nov. 21 – 27, as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Week.
  • 1993  FDA approves first drug treatment for Alzheimer’s.
  • 1998  The Association awards its first $1 million research grant.
  • 2001  Quest for a Cure campaign established to fund a select portfolio of cutting-edge research focused on a cure.
  • 2009  On September 21, millions around the globe come together against Alzheimer’s disease on World Alzheimer’s Day.

The president and CEO of the National Capital Area Chapter, Anthony K. Sudler, writes optimistically, “We may not be able to stop time, but we will one day end Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, we must remain ever vigilant — seizing the moment to gain ground — because every 70 seconds someone develops Alzheimer’s disease. It will be every 33 seconds by mid-century.

“Your generosity is also making a difference in our ability to provide care and support programs to the estimated 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.”

We all know that in this economic situation, money is tight. However, all nonprofit organizations appreciate your contribution no matter how small. So, if Alzheimer’s disease is of utmost concern to you, here are a couple of options. The link to the national organization is or you can find your local chapter at Finally, there are Memory Walks going on around the country, although as I write this, many are already over. Check here.  I’m doing my share to help and I hope you will, too.

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