What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s is a complex disease caused by the accumulation of harmful
proteins both inside and outside brain cells. These clumps, called plaques and
tangles, kill healthy neurons and eventually lead to memory loss and other
cognitive problems. What causes the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease remains a
What are the first warning signs and early symptoms? We want
to stress, Alzheimer’s disease is not
normal aging, but the very earliest symptoms are often misread as simply
getting older: having less energy and drive, some forgetfulness or confusion,
and mood changes. The name for the condition that precedes Alzheimer’s disease
is called Mild Cognitive Impairment. Many people ignore the early signs when
they should be seeing their doctors, asking for an evaluation.
How is someone diagnosed? Historically,
a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was 100% accurate only after death and a brain
autopsy. But more recently, physicians are able to make probable diagnoses
while people are living, using brain imaging technology, multiple questions and
answers, and an analysis of blood proteins.
Is Alzheimer’s hereditary? Yes and no. Heredity often plays a role but it
is not a guarantee. Many people with a family history of Alzheimer’s do not get
the disease, and likewise, many with no family history can still develop
Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, and the
greatest risk for everyone is simply living longer.
What about prevention? Are there ways to keep the brain healthy as we
age? A healthy brain is often part of good overall physical health. Although
there is no cure, there is research that says health-conscious living can delay
the onset of dementing diseases, including Alzheimer’s. We sometimes say,
“what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” meaning a heart-healthy
lifestyle is also a brain-healthy lifestyle. Getting lots of exercise, the
right amount of sleep, a good diet, and staying engaged with people and
creativity all make life more enjoyable with healthy brain benefits.
How can someone best help a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s? Continue to love and support the
person and be mindful that the disease is no one’s fault. Beyond having a
supportive attitude, families and individuals should get their affairs in order
while they have the presence of mind to do so. Determine how care in both the
short and long term can be provided. Don’t expect one person to have the
capacity, know-how or interest to provide all the care. Build a network of care
partners and get trained on how to properly manage the changes that are
What are researchers at the Rocky Mountain Alzheimer’s Disease Center
focused on? Are there any promising studies?
We have a large, dedicated team of scientists and clinicians at the
University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus working together, studying how
the disease develops and how it can be better diagnosed. We’re also developing
new treatments in the laboratory that will be next tested in mice and, if
successful, ultimately, in humans.