Alzheimer's disease is a condition in which nerve cells in the brain die, making it difficult for the brain's signals to be transmitted properly. A person with Alzheimer's disease has problems with memory, judgment, and thinking, which makes it hard for the person to work or take part in day-to-day life. The death of the nerve cells occurs gradually over a period of years.
Once thought to be rare, Alzheimer's disease is the leading cause of dementia, accounting for about half of all cases.
The Oscar-nominated movie Away from Her portrays a long-married
couple struggling with Alzheimer's disease and the emotional toll it causes when
the wife, played by actress Julie Christie, gives her affection to another man
whom she meets in a nursing home.
This heart-wrenching and emotional dramatization of Alzheimer's brings home
the difficulties families face when a person's ability to recognize and
maintain relationships gradually declines -- especially when the relationship
Most patients' symptoms progress slowly over a number of years. Symptoms may not be noticed early on. Sometimes, it is only when family members look back that they realize when the changes started to occur.
Impaired memory and thinking. The person has difficulty remembering things or learning new information. In the later stages of the disease, long-term memory loss occurs, which means that the person can't remember personal information, such as his or her place of birth or occupation, or names of close family members.
Disorientation and confusion. People with Alzheimer's disease may get lost when out on their own and may not be able to remember where they are or how they got there. They may not recognize previously familiar places and situations. They also may not recognize familiar faces or know what time of the day it is, or even what year it is.
Misplacing things. The person forgets where he or she put things used every day, such as glasses, a hearing aid, keys, etc. The person may also put things in strange places, such as leaving their glasses in the refrigerator.
Abstract thinking. People with Alzheimer's disease may find certain tasks -- such as balancing a checkbook -- more difficult than usual. For example, they might forget what the numbers mean and what needs to be done with them.
Trouble performing familiar tasks. The person begins to have difficulty performing daily tasks, such as eating, dressing, and grooming. Planning for normal day-to-day tasks is also impaired.
Changes in personality and behavior. The person becomes unusually angry, irritable, restless, or quiet. At times, people with Alzheimer's disease can become confused, paranoid, or fearful.
Poor or decreased judgment. People with Alzheimer's disease may leave the house on a cold day without a coat or shoes, or could go to the store wearing their pajamas.
Inability to follow directions. The person has difficulty understanding simple commands or directions. The person may get lost easily and begin to wander.
Problems with language and communication. The person can't recall words, name objects (even ones that are very familiar to them -- like a pen), or understand the meaning of common words.
Impaired visual and spatial skills. The person loses spatial abilities (the ability to judge shapes and sizes, and the relationship of objects in space) and can't arrange items in a certain order or recognize shapes.
Loss of motivation or initiative. The person may become very passive and require prompting to become involved and interact with others.
Loss of normal sleep patterns. The person may sleep during the day and be awake at night.