elderly man in wheelchair

This post was last updated on November 1, 2016

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurodegenerative disease in the world. It affects more than five million older adults in America.

There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, and prevention and treatment strategies are still in development and require further research.

Alzheimer’s disease is the combination of dementia and abnormal structures found within the brain.

Early stages of the disease impair someone’s ability to learn, remember, and plan tasks.

People with late-stage Alzheimer’s have trouble with basic actions such as:

  • Walking
  • Dressing
  • Eating

Alzheimer’s dementia occurs due to the significant presence of two abnormal structures in the brain:

  • Beta amyloid plaque
  • Neurofibrillary tangles

What Are Plaque and Tangles in the Brain?

Most people think of tangles as something you brush out of your hair in the morning. And, isn’t plaque what a dentist scrapes off your teeth? Unfortunately, tangles and plaque in the brain aren’t so easily remedied.

For a complete overview of what happens to the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient, watch the video, “Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Alzheimer’s Disease,” posted at UPMC’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

If you look at a brain with Alzheimer’s disease using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), you will see sections of the brain that have atrophied, most notably in the mesial temporal lobe.

The precise pathological process that leads to Alzheimer’s disease is unknown.

One theory is that beta amyloid plaque – found outside of the cell— and neurofibrillary tangles – the clumping of deposits inside of the cell – cause a cascade of:

  • Inflammation
  • Synaptic dysfunction and loss
  • Cell death

Researchers believe various glial cells in the brain surround amyloid plaques and neurons carrying neurofibrillary tangles, and the spreading of neurofibrillary tangles leads to Alzheimer’s dementia.

Is Alzheimer’s Genetic?

A complex interaction of risk factors is the cause of most Alzheimer’s cases.

These risks include:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Environmental and lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, and smoking

About one percent of all cases are the result of particular genes. People with a genetic code for Alzheimer’s develop the disease early, in their 30s and 40s.

How Do You Care For Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s often complicates care-giving because it might be just one health issue among others. Your loved one with Alzheimer’s may also need care for three or four other health problems.

Doctors at University of Pittsburgh’s Division of Geriatric Medicine, designated a National Center of Excellence by the John Hartford Foundation, recognize the multi-layered response necessary for developing individualized treatment.

The University of Pittsburgh Alzheimer Disease Research Center (ADRC) is one of the nation’s leading research centers that specializes in diagnosing and researching Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders such as dementia. The center is funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Recent studies performed include evaluating the effectiveness of the newest drugs to treat Alzheimer’s.