Beyond memory loss: Understanding Alzheimer’s disease

Berneet Kaur, MD
Erlanger Neuroscience Institute

When you think of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss comes to mind. But while that’s often one of the symptoms, it’s not the only one.

The other symptoms, though, are often less well-known. June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month — offering the perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about the disease and how it shows up.

First, let’s take a look at the numbers.

Alzheimer’s disease: By the numbers

An estimated 6.2 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2021. Seventy-two percent are age 75 or older.

  • An estimated 6.2 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2021. By 2050, that number is projected to hit nearly 13 million.
  • One in nine people age 65 and older (11.3%) has Alzheimer’s dementia.
  • Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women.
  • Older Black Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older Whites.
  • Older Hispanics are about one and one-half times as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older Whites.
  • In the United Sates, Alzheimer’s and dementia deaths have increased 16% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. It kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
  • More than 11 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementia.
  • In 2020, these caregivers provided and estimated 15.3 billion hours of care valued at nearly $257 billion.
  • Only 53% of Black Americans trust the a future cure for Alzheimer’s will be shared equally regardless of race, color, or ethnicity.
  • 3 in 10 hispanics do not believe they will live long enough to develop dementia.
  • Between 2000 and 2019, deaths from heart disease have decreased 7.3% while deaths from Alzheimer’s have increased 145%.

Understanding the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

While memory loss is the most obvious symptom of any type of dementia, there are many other symptoms to keep an eye on.

The Alzheimer’s Association has identified 10 early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

What to watch forWhat it's not
Memory loss that’s enough to disrupt daily life.Forgetting someone’s name or where your keys are, but remembering later.
Difficulty planning or solving problems.Occasional challenges with balancing a checkbook or following a recipe.
Difficulty completing basic tasks at home or at work.Needing help to figure out a piece of technology.
Confusion related to time or place.Forgetting what day of the week it is, but remembering it later.
Trouble with visuals or spatial relationships.Vision problems caused by diminished eye health.
New difficulties with words in speaking or writing.Sometimes not remembering the right word.
Misplacing items often and not knowing how find them.Losing something from time to time, but being able to retrace your steps to find the item.
A diminished sense of judgment.Making a poor decision every once in a while.
Withdrawal from work or social activities.Not wanting to spend time with others all the time.
Changes in mood or personality.Getting irritated when a routine is disrupted or process isn’t followed.

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms — especially if you see a pattern emerging — talk with a doctor. When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, early detection and prompt treatment are important to limit the effects of the disease.

Early detection & Alzheimer’s disease

Today, there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, though research is ongoing. But treatments are available to help those diagnosed with the disease manage the symptoms and maintain a quality of life.

That’s why it’s important to talk with a doctor if you begin experiencing signs of dementia.

There’s not a single test that decisively determines a person has Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, doctors will obtain a thorough medical and family medical history, analyze a person’s mental status and mood, conduct a physical and neurological exam, and run other tests that rule out non-dementia causes of symptoms.

Once Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed, doctors have a number of treatment options at their disposal — including medications to help with memory loss, therapies and medications to help with behavioral changes, and medications to alleviate sleep difficulties. Depending on the severity of the disease, a doctor may also recommend lifestyle habits that can help boost memory and cognitive health, like physical exercise, dietary changes, and brain exercises.

Berneet Kaur, MD is a neurologist with Erlanger Memory and Aging Services. Learn more about Erlanger Memory and Aging Services here.