Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It affects memory, thinking and behavior and gets progressively worse over time. Developing Alzheimer’s disease is not a part of normal aging. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not known. Scientists at Wake Forest are trying to understand risk factors that lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

You are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease if you:

  • Are older
  • Have a close relative, such as a brother, sister or parent with Alzheimer’s disease
  • Have certain genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease

The following may also increase your risk:

  • Being female
  • Have heart and blood vessel problems due to high cholesterol or high blood pressure
  • Have diabetes
  • Have a history of head trauma

There are two types of Alzheimer’s disease:

Early onset Alzheimer’s disease: Symptoms appear before age 60. This type is much less common than late onset. It tends to get worse quickly. Early onset disease can run in families. Several genes have been identified.

Late onset Alzheimer’s disease: This is the most common type. It occurs in people age 60 and older. It may run in some families, but the role of genes is less clear.

Symptoms of Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the stage between normal forgetfulness due to aging and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. People with MCI have mild problems with thinking and memory that do not interfere with daily activities. They are often aware of the forgetfulness. Not everyone with MCI develops Alzheimer’s disease.

Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) include:

  • Difficulty performing more than one task at a time
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Forgetting recent events or conversations
  • Taking longer to perform more difficult activities

Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can include:

  • Difficulty performing tasks that take some thought but used to come easily, such as balancing a checkbook, playing complex games (bridge) and learning new information or routines
  • Getting lost on familiar routes
  • Language problems, such as trouble remembering the names of familiar objects
  • Losing interest in things previously enjoyed and being in a flat mood
  • Misplacing items
  • Personality changes and loss of social skills

As Alzheimer’s disease becomes worse, symptoms are more obvious and interfere with the ability to take care of oneself. Symptoms may include:

  • Change in sleep patterns, often waking up at night
  • Delusions, depression and agitation
  • Difficulty doing basic tasks, such as preparing meals, choosing proper clothing and driving
  • Difficulty reading or writing
  • Forgetting details about current events
  • Forgetting events in one's life history and losing self-awareness
  • Hallucinations, arguments, striking out and violent behavior
  • Poor judgment and loss of ability to recognize danger
  • Using the wrong word, mispronouncing words, or speaking in confusing sentences
  • Withdrawing from social contact

People with severe Alzheimer’s disease can no longer:

  • Recognize family members
  • Perform basic activities of daily living, such as eating, dressing and bathing
  • Understand language

Brain Changes in Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease results in distinct changes in the brain. Certain areas of the brain decrease in volume as the disease progresses. There are also characteristic deposits of proteins called beta amyloid and tau. In the past, Alzheimer’s disease could only be determined with an autopsy of the brain after the patient passed away. Currently, doctors and scientists can use brain imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure changes in brain volume and positron emission tomography (PET) to measure changes in beta amyloid and tau deposits.  Scientists at Wake Forest University use these techniques and others to study Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at the Wake Forest Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center are trying to understand the causes and early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The goal of our research is to improve early diagnosis and intervention to improve quality of life and either slow or halt the course of the disease. Our scientists are enrolling volunteers in the Healthy Brain Study to follow participants over time, collecting cognitive data, brain images and biological samples at regular intervals to better understand brain aging and which risk factors lead to Alzheimer’s disease. 

Still Here

A documentary about the impact of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in American Indian communities in North Carolina, made with support by the Wake Forest Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.

Healthy Brain Study

Have you ever considered an annual check-up for your brain? As responsible adults, we are diligent about getting annual physical exams because we know that if a problem is detected early, there is greater chance for successful treatment.  So what about an annual check-up for your brain?

Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to be proactive about our brain health through the Healthy Brain Study at the Wake Forest Sticht Center for Healthy Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention. The Healthy Brain Study provides a unique opportunity to receive an extensive annual brain health assessment at no charge. It is open to adults with:

  • No memory concerns
  • Mild memory concerns
  • Early stage Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Following your visit, we will review the results with you and then schedule your next checkup. To be eligible for this innovative brain health study, participants must:  

  • Be age 55 or over
  • Not be taking insulin for diabetes
  • Be ready to be proactive about their brain health

To learn more, call:  336-716-MIND (6463)

Other Clinical Studies on Alzheimer’s Disease

To learn more about what it means to participate in clinical research for Alzheimer’s disease, visit our page on Participating in Clinical Research and see our Featured Clinical Studies

Wake Forest Memory Assessment Clinic

If you are seeking patient care and medical treatment related to Alzheimer’s disease, we recommend that you contact the Wake Forest Memory Assessment Clinic.