It's virtually impossible to imagine how it would feel to wake up in the morning and not have a clue where you were. Unfortunately, this dilemma is becoming too common.

As we age, we're more prone to an array of diseases. Two of the most prominent ones are Alzheimer's and dementia. Because of the high probability that you or someone you know will develop one of these mental debilitating diseases, it's worthwhile having a general understanding of them along with some treatment options.

We'll begin with Alzheimer's disease. It eventually destroys the intellectual functions of the brain (e.g., memory, orientation, and deductive capacity). Initially, these abilities aren't impaired, only sections of the brain controlling physical sensitivity and motor skills.

Typically, memory is the first brain process that's affected and there's noticeable steady deterioration. Eventually, judgment impairment and related challenges affect one's capacity to perform routine daily actions. Alzheimer's onset commonly occurs around age 60 or later, but there are cases involving younger people. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, but we'll get to that disease later.

Interestingly, everyone is born with the genetic potential to develop Alzheimer's disease. The average person's risk of developing it ranges from 10 to 15 percent. Here are some risk factors:

Age: As we age the odds of developing Alzheimer's disease increase.

Family history: When immediate family members have the disease, your risk of developing it substantially increases.

Genetic factors: Genetic factors are an issue with any disease risk.

In the initial stages of Alzheimer's disease, the newest or most recent memories become difficult or sometimes impossible to recall. It becomes challenging to learn and retain new information. Over time, old memories fade and are completely lost. Additional symptoms often emerge, such as trouble expressing thoughts as spoken words, inability to follow simple directions and problems recognizing familiar faces.

Ultimately, the person can't manage money, remember to close doors or windows, or recall their medications and when to take them. At some point they'll lose their sense of direction and become disoriented and lost while walking in their own neighborhood.

Additionally, many people having Alzheimer's disease develop various psychological problems with personality changes, irritability, anxiety and depression being common.

As the disease progresses, the person may experience irrational thoughts and delusions and frightening hallucinations. In the final stage, it's common for aggression to emerge and they may tend to wander away from home. Constant supervision and care is required.

Here's an overview of dementia. This is a type of mental decline caused by an assortment of diseases or conditions.

Those with dementia lose their mental ability with memory loss coming as the first sign. This phase evolves into an inability to perform basic mental and physical functions. Dementia usually develops much slower than Alzheimer's, over a period of years with the earliest symptoms being nearly unremarkable. However, people with dementia are known to have considerable memory loss. They, too, may develop an inability to effectively communicate, recognize formerly familiar people, perform routine tasks or think clearly and critically.

Here are some common causes of dementia:

Alzheimer's disease is responsible for about 45 percent of all dementias.

Vascular disease (e.g., stroke) causes 20 percent.

Lewy body disease, a degenerative condition involving neurons in the brain, causes 20 percent.

Traumatic head injury

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome

Alcohol abuse

Degenerative diseases (e.g., Huntington's disease)

Brain abscess

Multiple sclerosis

There are some instances when dementia is caused by a treatable condition and may be partially or entirely reversed if diagnosed and treated early. For example:


Adverse reactions to medication


Infections (e.g., syphilis)

Metabolic conditions (e.g., vitamin and hormone deficiencies)

Today, 5 million people in the country have dementia; about 15 percent are over age 65. An estimated 12 million Americans will have dementia over the next 20 years.

While treatment of the most severe forms of dementia is problematical, sustaining an active mind and fit body may help delay or deter mental decline. Getting daily physical exercise and challenging your brain throughout life are worthwhile endeavors for everyone.



Additional information about these diseases can be obtained from:

*National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

P.O. Box 5801, Bethesda, Md., 20824


*American Geriatrics Society

The Empire State Building 350 Fifth Ave. Suite 801, New York, N.Y., 10118


*Alzheimer's Association

225 North Michigan Ave. Floor 17, Chicago, Ill., 60601-7633


*Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center (ADEAR) National Institute on Aging

P.O. Box 8250, Silver Spring, Md., 20907-8250


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