Catching Alzheimer’s Disease Early

November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about this disease.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain condition that affects your memory and thinking. It starts with mild memory problems and then progresses to affect other aspects of your thinking, such as being able to keep track of the time. Eventually it can affect behavior and mood and, in severe cases, patients need help with basic activities of daily living.

What physical effects does Alzheimer’s disease have?

Certain proteins start to build up inside and between the brain cells. But we don’t know exactly why.The buildup starts damaging brain cells and causing chemical imbalances and the cells can’t talk to each other.

What are some early warning signs?

One of the early warning signs is trouble remembering things. Everyone can have memory lapses, but if you start noticing consistent problems with things that used to be easy, like the names of family members, it may be a red flag.

Can we predict who is most at-risk?

There are many risk factors for Alzheimer’s. One risk factor we can’t do anything about is age. And it tends to be more common in women than in men. It’s also more common in African Americans and Hispanics, and that may be because of increased rates of high blood pressure and diabetes in those populations. So we urge people to take steps to control their blood pressure and blood sugar.

Are there tests for early detection?

If you’re concerned you or a loved one may have Alzheimer’s, it’s important to be evaluated by a doctor. We recommend bringing someone along who knows the person, because he or she may not realize there’s a problem. Your doctor will check for treatable conditions that can cause memory problems, such as vitamin deficiencies or thyroid problems. Your doctor will also do some memory and thinking tests, and he or she may order a brain scan to check for a stroke or brain tumor. Your doctor will diagnose Alzheimer’s only after he or she has ruled out other possible conditions. The only way you can know for sure is to look at the brain tissue under a microscope, which isn’t something doctors do with people who are still alive. So researchers are working on developing a diagnostic test.

What treatments exist for Alzheimer’s disease?

Available treatments help with symptoms, and keep your memory and thinking problems from worsening as quick. These treatments enable you to continue to do most of your daily activities and participate in decisions about your future.

What Alzheimer’s research goes on at the Indiana University School of Medicine?

Scientists at IUSM helped test many current Alzheimer’s treatments, and have helped identify biomarkers that may lead to new treatments. There are ongoing studies that focus on the damaging proteins and chemical imbalances. We have people coming in for scans and other tests as researchers look for clues, such as genetic influences that may help predict who’s susceptible to getting Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information on Alzheimer’s, visit the IU Health Neuroscience Center.