Alzheimer’s: What Exactly is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is an irreversible age-related form of dementia that slowly erodes the brain. It robs the person of memory and cognitive skills, and causes changes in personality and behavior. On average, people who have Alzheimer’s live eight to ten years after they’re diagnosed, though the disease can in some cases linger for up to twenty years.

The disease got its name from a German physician named Alois Alzheimer, who had been treating a woman named Auguste D. in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1906, at the age of 51, Auguste D. died after suffering for years from memory loss, progressive deterioration in her cognitive functions, and bizarre alterations in her personality.

While doing an autopsy on her, Alzheimer noticed many unusual lesions and entanglements in her brain. These lesions and entanglements resembled those seen in older people who had been diagnosed with senile dementia. Since this woman had been relatively young, Alzheimer called the condition pre-senile dementia of the Alzheimer type.

In the century since then, scientists have developed a much better understanding of these lesions and entanglements and given them more scientific names, beta amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These pathological findings are now recognized as the classic signs of the illness. But where do these come from and why are they there? In order to understand what goes wrong with the brain in Alzheimer’s, and why ordinary tasks gradually become monumental challenges, it’s important to know how a healthy brain functions and its role in the body’s nervous system.

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