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MAIN Arrow to HealthHealth Arrow to DiseaseDiseases Arrow to Alzheimer's DiseaseAlzheimer's Disease

Memory loss and dementia in old age has been recognized for centuries by the medical establishment.

As the body ages, symptoms of brain atrophy begin to appear in the sudden forgetfulness of familiar names, faces, or surroundings.

Yet it wasn't until 1906 when German physician Alois Alzheimer performed autopsies on patients with severe brain abnormalities that this particular form of dementia was given a name.

Why diagnosing Alzheimer's is so difficult

What Dr. Alzheimer found, to his surprise, was amyloid plaque surrounding nerve cells within the brain and, deeper within those nerve cells, twisted fibers called neurofibrillary tangles.

Today, these two conditions are the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease, although not readily diagnosable without tests that would harm a living patient.

Doctors and researchers are further stymied by the fact that conventional tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can only detect structural changes in the brain. They are not yet powerful enough to reveal the minuscule changes in brain cells where the damage originates.

diagram showing how plaque buildup damages brain tissue and nerve cells
The mental confusion of Alzheimer's disease
is caused by microscopic buildup of plaque
which damages brain tissue and nerve cells.

Today, physicians still usually engage in early detective work through simple observations of the patient's behavior.

Further clouding the issue, however, presents itself in classic Alzheimer's symptoms -- including forgetfulness and mental confusion -- that are often also found in other disease conditions such as heart disease and circulatory problems, thyroid disease, depression, or alcoholism.

Therefore, a complete physical workup and related tests to eliminate other causes are usually required before an exact diagnosis is made.

Working toward a cure

While a cure for the disease has yet to be found, advances in MRI screenings for Alzheimer's, and research into a genetic component are resulting in exciting discoveries that may shed some light on why and what goes wrong.

In 2012, researchers at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute detected a genetic mutation that revealed early-onset in brain scans differing from those without the mutation. The tell-tale sign? An elevated level of the protein beta-amyloid in fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Meanwhile, Alzheimer's biomarkers (much like monitoring cholesterol in the blood of heart disease patients) are picking up the signs of the disease earlier, and Alzheimer's treatments are being developed that may one day end the brain damage done by this little understood illness.

Alzheimer's drugs have also been developed to manage symptoms until a cure can be found.

Around the Web, find help through online support, facts & information, and the progress shown in recent studies holding out new hope for battling Alzheimer's disease.

More about Alzheimer's disease around the Web:

Alzheimer Association
- This site is for patients, caregivers and families. Resources include registration for the 'Safe Return' program, links in many languages and an online information and support community with a 24 hour hotline.

ADEAR - Alzheimer's Disease Education & Referral Center - US government sponsored site with good information, a telephone support line and lots of free resources. Videos and other information can be requested online.

The Ribbon - Caregivers can find themselves feeling lost and hopeless when dealing with the emotional effects of Alzheimer's. The Ribbon is a space where sharing is made easy through a chat room and forum. Real support and information in a well designed format make this newsletter/online support site a welcome resource.

Alzforum: Alzheimer Research Forum - This site is geared to researchers so if you're not familiar with chemokine receptors and prions, it may not be for you. It does present the latest thinking about the causes and treatments of this disease.

This information is intended as reference and not as medical advice.
All treatment decisions should be made in consultation with medical professionals.

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