Have an aging parent? Worried about Alzheimer's disease?

We asked the Food and Drug Administration to help us provide you with some basic information on the condition.

We know: The Basics on Alzheimer's

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's is a brain disorder that starts with mild memory loss, changes in personality and behavior, and a decline in thinking abilities (cognition). It progresses to loss of speech and movement, then total incapacitation and eventually death. It is normal for memory to decline as people get older, but Alzheimer's is not a part of normal aging.

Who gets the disease?

About 4 million Americans have the disease. The two biggest risk factors for getting the disease are age and genetics. Scientists have also identified several genes that play a role in early-onset Alzheimer's, a rare form of the disease that strikes people as young as in their 30s.

As age increases, so does the risk of getting Alzheimer's. For each five-year age group beyond 65, the percentage of people with the disease doubles, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Nearly half of those over age 85 have it.

What are the treatments available for Alzheimer's?

There is no cure for the disease, but there are drugs available to treat some of the symptoms. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the following prescription drugs for people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's:

  • Cognex (tacrine)
  • Aricept (donepezil)
  • Exelon (rivastigmine)
  • Reminyl (galantamine)

The drugs appear to slow down some of the symptoms, but don't appear to stop the underlying progression of the disease.

How is Alzheimer's diagnosed?

Currently, Alzheimer's can only be diagnosed conclusively by examining the brain after death. But physicians can make a probable diagnosis on living patients by taking a complete medical history, administering neurological and psychological tests, and doing a physical exam, blood and urine laboratory tests, and a brain-imaging scan.

Do people start getting the disease before symptoms show themselves?

At this time, research suggests that the illness may predate clinical symptoms by years and maybe decades. Scientists hope that neuroimaging may one day prove useful in monitoring the progression of the disease and assessing people's responses to drug treatment.

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