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Special Health Reports

Dear Reader,

Did you ever stride purposefully into a room, stand in one spot, and then wonder what you'd intended to do? Lose your house keys or forget where you parked the car? Relax. Occasional memory slips are natural.

Perhaps, though, memory problems are piling up in ways that affect daily life. Or maybe your concerns go beyond forgetfulness. Do you find yourself struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word, becoming confused in new places, or botching tasks that once came easily? Everyone has these experiences sometimes, but if they frequently happen to you or someone you love, they may be early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

This condition strikes fear into people's hearts, with good reason. It is the leading cause of dementia, a brain disorder that robs people of the ability to think, learn, and remember, and, eventually, of their very selves. About 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, and estimates suggest it will affect 7.7 million by 2030. Already, it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There is no cure, and available treatments alleviate symptoms temporarily at best.

Better times may be coming. Many new drugs are under investigation. New research is turning up evidence of very early signs of Alzheimer's, offering possible targets for new treatments that could alter the disease's course before more flagrant symptoms appear. And diagnostic guidelines published in 2011 by the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer's Association aim to help researchers move closer to early detection and intervention.

Meanwhile, caring for someone with Alzheimer's continues to be one of the toughest jobs in the world. It is stressful, physically and emotionally draining, and very expensive, as almost 15 million unpaid caregivers for people with Alzheimer's and other dementias can attest.

Because the disease is progressive, coping with it requires foresight and careful advance planning. People in the early stages of Alzheimer's often can be partners in that planning, and this comprehensive report can guide you, as well. In it, you'll find hope for people who are struggling with Alzheimer's and practical help for caregivers.

With forethought, patience, knowledge, and support, you can better meet the challenges posed by this disease and improve the quality of your life and that of your loved ones.


John H. Growdon, M.D.
Medical Editor


agnosia: An impairment of sensory perception.

aphasia: An impairment in the ability to use language.

apraxia: An impairment in motor skills and coordination.

beta-amyloid: An abnormal protein deposited in the brain in Alzheimer's disease.

cholinergic neurons: Nerve cells that produce acetylcholine.

delirium: Mental impairment with altered consciousness.

dementia: Impairment of memory and other cognitive abilities in the absence of delirium.

limbic system: An area of the brain containing the amygdala and hippocampus that is involved in memory and emotions.

mild cognitive impairment: A condition in which memory or, less commonly, another cognitive function is below normal but does not interfere with daily functioning. Considered a transitional state between normal forgetfulness and dementia.

neuritic plaques: Clumps of degenerating neuronal axons and dendrites surrounding an amyloid core that are found in Alzheimer's disease.

neurofibrillary tangles: Abnormal twisted fibers inside neurons in Alzheimer's disease.

plaques: See neuritic plaques.

prion: The smallest known infectious agent; unlike a virus or bacterium, it's made up entirely of protein and contains no nucleic acid.

sundowning: The appearance or worsening of behavior problems in the evening.

tangles: See neurofibrillary tangles.

tardive dyskinesia: Involuntary writhing movements of the facial muscles and tongue caused by high doses of antipsychotic drugs over long periods of time.

vascular dementia: Dementia caused by a stroke or series of tiny strokes. Also called multi-infarct dementia.

Author: Harvard Health Publications
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2011
Date Last Modified: 9/23/2013
Copyright Harvard Health Publications