Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that impairs memory and thinking skills over time. It is a form of irreversible dementia that progresses through a series of predictable stages. An individual with a mild form of Alzheimer’s disease may experience slight cognitive impairment that results in problems such as getting lost, losing or misplacing items, repeating questions, and personality and behavioral changes. When the disease progresses into its most severe form, an individual will often be unable to communicate, control their bowels and bladder, experience difficulty swallowing, and be confined to a bed as their body shuts down.
Scientists are still working to understand the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. While genetic mutation is generally the cause of early-onset Alzheimer’s, late-onset Alzheimer’s likely arises from a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that produce changes in the brain. Throughout the brain of an individual with Alzheimer’s disease there are abnormal deposits of proteins that form amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Over time, these abnormal changes cause neurons in the brain to stop functioning and die.
Though Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, other related dementias produce similarly devastating results.
Alzheimer’s disease has a significant impact on the United States, with an estimated 5.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s in 2017. Because Alzheimer’s disease impairs a person’s ability to perform daily tasks, it requires significant time and resources to care for an individual with Alzheimer’s disease. This is amplified by the fact that Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disorder that can progress for up to 20 years before death. In 2016, almost 16 million caregivers provided over 18 billion hours of unpaid assistance to those with Alzheimer’s disease. Those contributions were valued at $230.1 billion. The strain of being a caregiver for a person with dementia drastically increases reports of emotional, financial, and physical difficulties.