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Alzheimer's Disease: Causes

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Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disorder that affects millions of older adults. Suspecting you or a loved one may be exhibiting signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can be incredibly stressful and emotional.

It’s important to keep in mind that even if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease and you find yourself forgetting things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have this disease.

Whatever the case, be sure to contact your doctor immediately because the earlier you recognize the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and seek treatment, the better your chances of maximizing your quality of life.

Scientists believe that for the majority of the population, Alzheimer's disease results from a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time. In very rare cases (less than 5 percent), Alzheimer's is caused by specific genetic changes that guarantee a person will develop the disease.

The causes of Alzheimer's disease are not yet fully understood. But, the effect of the disease on the brain is unmistakable. A brain affected by Alzheimer's disease has many fewer cells and many fewer connections among surviving cells than does a healthy brain.

More specifically, Alzheimer's disease is characterized by a build-up of proteins in the brain. When doctors examine Alzheimer's brain tissue under the microscope, they see two types of protein abnormalities that are considered hallmarks of the disease.

Plaques are clumps of a certain protein (beta-amyloid) that may damage and destroy brain cells in many ways, including interfering with cell-to-cell communication.

Tangles are twists of the tau protein in the brain. Brain cells depend on an internal support and transport system to carry nutrients and other essential materials throughout their long extensions.

In Alzheimer's, threads of tau protein twist into abnormal tangles, leading to failure of the brain’s transport system.

Autopsies have revealed that most people develop some plaques and tangles as they age. But, people with Alzheimer’s develop far more plaques and tangles than those who do not develop the disease.

Scientists still don’t know why some people develop many and others do not. Nonetheless, several risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease have been discovered. The primary risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are age and family history.

However, there are other risk factors that are within your control. Maintaining a healthy heart and avoiding high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol can decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol, staying socially connected, and exercising both your body and mind are also important lifestyle factors.

In addition, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (affecting patients under the age of 65) is based largely upon genetics. This relatively rare condition is seen most often in patients whose parents or grandparents developed Alzheimer’s disease at a young age.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is generally associated with three precise gene mutations (the APP gene found on chromosome 21, the PSI gene on chromosome 12, and the PS2 gene on chromosome 1).

Should you suspect that you or a loved one have Alzheimer’s disease, be sure to contact a medical professional immediately. Fortunately, the earlier the diagnosis is made and treatment is commenced, the better the chances of maximizing quality of life.


Alzheimer’s Disease: Causes. Web. www.mayoclinic.org. Accessed 30 Dec. 2011.

Alzheimer’s Disease. Web. http://helpguide.org. Accessed 30 Dec. 2011.

What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease. Web. http://alzheimers.about.com. Accessed 30 Dec. 2011. http://alzheimers.about.com/od/whatisalzheimer1/a/causes.htm

Reviewed January 2, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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