What Exactly is Alzheimer Disease?

The term dementia refers to a brain disorder that manifests itself in several ways. A person may become confused even in familiar settings, may ask questions repeatedly, or may neglect such basic things as their own hygiene or basic safety issues. Alzheimer disease is the most common form of dementia associated with old age.

The disease is named after German doctor Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Doctor Alzheimer noticed differences in the brain tissue of a patient of his that died with unusual mental illnesses and dementia. His study led him to discover abnormal clumps and tangles of fiber in the brains of those patients who were suffering from this same disease. So while it was common for persons who were older and losing their mental faculties to be dismissed as "senile," Doctor Alzheimer was able to pinpoint the actual breakdown in the brain that led to the loss of their mental faculties.

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are actual brain changes in persons with Alzheimer Disease. They can see how nerve cells die in areas of the brain that affect memory and basic abilities. It may seem strange, but everything that we do on a daily basis is because of memory. We remember that we need to shower on a regular basis, that we need to close the door behind us when we leave the house. We don't realize that we're doing these things because of memory, and assume that they just happen naturally. But when those memories break down because of Alzheimer or any other mental disorder, even the most basic everyday functions begin to be confusing or neglected.

The brain works by a series of connections between nerve endings, all of which are related. For example, the part of the brain that controls speech sends signals to the nerves that spark the muscles and parts of the mouth when we want to talk. All of our mental and physical functions work this way. With Alzheimer disease, these nerve signals are disrupted or broken. If the brain cannot continue to make connections in the nerve cells that control memory, all the basic functions are interrupted. The brain cannot remember that it just asked a question, so a person repeats it. They cannot remember their own children, so they are now strangers. Alzheimer can be a very frightening and debilitating disease for the patients and the families as well.