USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute

Frequently Asked Questions

"Dementia" is a general, encompassing term for disorders where there is confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. Alzheimer's is a specific type of dementia with its own set of symptoms and characteristics. If you are told that you or your loved has dementia, ask your doctor or clinician what is causing the dementia.
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive degenerative disorder that impairs thinking, memory and behavior. It is characterized by a distinctive pattern of "plaques and tangles in the brain." Plaques are patches of dying nerve fibers clustered outside of the nerve cell; tangles are threads of nerve fiber. The disease destroys brain cells and ultimately leads to death.
Although Alzheimer’s affects the brain, it is not a mental illness. However, depression is a common mental illness and can cause Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Depression is a treatable and reversible condition.
Alzheimer's is NOT a normal part of aging. As people age they tend to experience changes in the speed of recall; the information is there, but, with age, it may take longer to access information. The following examples show some of the differences between age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s:

Normal Aging - May forget what she/he ate for lunch 
Alzheimer's - Forgets that she/he had lunch

Normal Aging - May not always recall names of friends and relatives, but recognizes them and recalls the names later 
Alzheimer's - Doesn't recognize friends and relatives or know their names

Normal Aging - May not remember today's date, but knows the year, month and the day 
Alzheimer's - Cannot remember the day of the week, season, year, month or day

It used to be said that the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease could only be made at autopsy, but that is no longer the case. We now know that if a person has a thorough evaluation by a dementia specialist, the diagnosis can be made with a very high degree of accuracy. There is no single test to diagnose Alzheimer's. A comprehensive evaluation should include the following components:

  • History - A thorough medical history must be obtained from the caregiver and the patient.
  • Patient & Caregiver Interview - The clinician will meet with the patient and caregiver to get an understanding of their concerns and the changes they have noticed in the patient’s memory, behaviors and cognitive function. Many clinicians will see the patient and caregiver separately to give them the opportunity to speak openly to the doctor or clinician.
  • Medical Tests - The doctor or clinician may order blood tests, or urine analysis to rule out other medical conditions.
  • Brain Scans - An MRI is preferable but a CT scan is very good for those who cannot have an MRI. Sometimes a physician will also order a newer scan called a PET scan to help differentiate the specific type of dementia.
  • Cognitive Testing - Cognitive testing assesses various areas of cognitive function including, visuospatial, language, short term memory, delayed recall, attention, abstract thinking, executive function, orientation and more.

The following are the warning signs for Alzheimer's. Not everyone exhibits all of these, especially early on, and they do not occur in a particular order.

  • Asking the same question over and over. 
  • Repeating the same story, word for word. 
  • Forgetting activities that were previously done with ease and regularity such as cooking, playing cards or making repairs. 
  • Losing one’s ability to pay bills or balance one’s checkbook. 
  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings or misplacing household objects. 
  • Neglecting to bathe, or wearing the same clothes over and over again while insisting they have taken a bath or that their clothes are still clean. 
  • Relying on someone else, such as a spouse, to make decisions or answer questions they previously would have handled themselves 

Some forms of dementia are reversible if diagnosed earlier enough and treatments are available. Although Alzheimer’s is not reversible, early diagnosis enables patients and their families to plan for the future. It gives them time to discuss care options while the patient can still take part in making decisions. Early diagnosis also offers the best chance to treat the symptoms of the disease.

There is nothing you can do that will definitely prevent Alzheimer's but there are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s. Everything that can reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease can also reduce your risk for Alzheimer's or other dementias. Specifically, monitor and manage your cholesterol, blood pressure and weight; and completely avoid use of tobacco products. Research has shown that getting regular physical exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting a good night’s sleep can greatly reduce your risk. Staying socially connected and participating in stimulating cognitive activities may also help reduce your risk.

There are many over-the-counter products claiming to prevent Alzheimer’s or improve brain function. It is important to consult with your doctor or clinician before taking any vitamins, herbals or other supplements.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) causes memory changes and other cognitive functions that you or a family member may notice. However, unlike Alzheimer’s disease, these changes do not interfere with your daily life or affect your ability to function and remain independent. Although people with MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer's, not everyone with MCI develops Alzheimer's. There may be other factors causing your memory and cognitive changes so seek a memory specialist for an evaluation.