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Alzheimer Disease

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jul 4, 2022.

What is Alzheimer disease (AD)?

AD is a brain disorder that causes memory loss over time. Parts of the brain die and cannot make normal levels of brain chemicals. This causes problems with how you think, behave, and remember things. The disease usually starts at about age 65 to 70 years but can start earlier. The exact cause of AD is not known.

What increases my risk for AD?

The risk for AD increases with age, but it is not a normal part of aging. The following may increase your risk for AD:

  • A family history of AD
  • A protein called ApoE, which normally carries cholesterol in the blood
  • Diabetes or Down syndrome
  • High cholesterol or carotid artery disease
  • A heart attack, head injury, or depression
  • Smoking cigarettes

What are the signs and symptoms of mild AD?

Early AD symptoms may be minor and last from 1 to 3 years.

  • Remembering what happened years ago but not what happened yesterday
  • Forgetting the names of common things or people you know
  • Confusion about what month or season it is
  • Forgetting to brush your teeth or comb your hair
  • Trouble taking care of your home or finances or difficulty making decisions
  • Loss of interest in your usual activities
  • Feeling depressed, angry, or confused about the changes you notice

What are the signs and symptoms of moderate AD?

  • Problems choosing clothes to wear, doing simple jobs, or caring for yourself
  • Not recognizing people familiar to you
  • Trouble finding words to say what you mean or talking in normal sentences, or speech that is hard to understand
  • Feeling anxious, restless, and agitated at night and seeming depressed or worried
  • Trouble controlling emotions and becoming loud, violent, and hard to control
  • Becoming confused and wandering off or pacing
  • Not being able to plan and follow through with activities
  • Thinking something is true even though it is not, or seeing things that are not actually there
  • Trouble controlling when you urinate or have a bowel movement

What are the signs and symptoms of severe AD?

  • Complete loss of memory
  • Complete loss of speech
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Trouble walking
  • Becoming angry and out of control or aggressive and destroying things
  • Not being able to care for yourself and needing someone to take care of you

How is AD diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you. He or she will ask questions about your symptoms and when they started. Your provider will ask if you have other family members with AD. He or she will also ask if you take any medicines and if you drink alcohol or use tobacco.

  • Mental function testing checks how well you think and solve problems. You may be asked to draw a face clock. The clock may need to show a certain time of day. You may be asked what month it currently is, or the city you are in. Other tests may be used to check your attention, language skills, or ability to see how objects are spaced apart.
  • Memory testing will be done regularly so healthcare providers can monitor memory changes over time. Healthcare providers will test your long-term memory by asking questions about how much you remember from the past. They will also test your short-term memory by asking you to remember new facts.
  • Blood tests may be used to rule out any other conditions that could be causing your symptoms. Some temporary conditions may be similar to AD but can be treated.
  • MRI or CT pictures of your brain may be taken. You may be given contrast liquid before the scan. Tell a healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • A PET scan may be used to record the activity of chemicals in your brain.

How is AD treated?

AD cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Treatment includes keeping a good quality of life, for as long as possible. Ask your healthcare provider for more information about the most current treatment available. Your healthcare provider may suggest one or more of the following:

  • Medicines may be given to help you think better or to slow the death of brain cells. You may also need medicines to help you feel less depressed, anxious, angry, or restless. These medicines can also help you sleep better. Medicines can also help with bladder and bowel control or to control delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations.
  • Counseling (talk therapy) can help you find ways to cope with AD. You may work only with a counselor, or also with family members or others with AD. Counseling may help you talk about your feelings. You may learn ways to control your actions and emotions. Stimulation therapy can help keep your mind active. Counselors may use music, art, or animals in this type of therapy.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

What can I do to manage AD?

You may have a family member or friend who can help you with daily tasks. Your healthcare provider can give you information on how to find someone if needed. The person can help set up alarms or timers to remind you to eat, take medicines, and use the bathroom. He or she may be able to help you prepare meals, bathe, and get to appointments. The kind of help you need will change over time. The following can help you manage AD:

  • Place clocks and calendars where you can see them. This will help you remember appointments and tasks.
  • Keep activities the same from day to day. Take breaks often. Save difficult activities for when you are the most alert. Choose activities you are interested in doing.
  • Keep mealtimes at the same time each day. Your healthcare providers can help you create a meal plan.
  • Create a bathroom schedule. An example is going every 4 hours.
  • Limit the amount of liquid you drink in the evening. This may help you sleep through the night. Try to go to bed at the same time every night.
  • Keep your mind and body active. Call or visit people often. This will keep your social skills sharp, and may help reduce depression. Do activities that you love, such as art, gardening, or listening to music. Regular physical activity, such as exercise, may help if you feel depressed or anxious. Exercise can also help you sleep better.
    Walking for Exercise
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause blood vessel damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.

Further information

  • Alzheimer's Association
    225 N. Michigan Ave., Floor 17
    Chicago , IL 60601-7633
    Phone: 1- 800 - 272-3900
    Web Address:
  • Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center
    P.O. Box 8250
    Silver Spring , MD 20907
    31 Center Drive, MSC 2292
    Bethesda , MD 20892
    Phone: 1- 800 - 438-4380
    Web Address:

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have a rash or your skin is itchy and swollen.
  • You are depressed and have difficulty coping with your symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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