YOU ASKED, WE ANSWERED: Expert Responses to Alzheimer's Queries

Vicki from San Jose, Calif., asked: "My mother was diagnosed with severe dementia at age 89. How does that differ from Alzheimer's? Is dementia a precurser to Alzheimer's? Do both Alzheimer's and dementia tend to be hereditary? Would exercise ward off dementia as well as Alzheimer's? Thank you."

Dr. Petersen answered: Dementia is the umbrella term we use to describe an impairment in memory and at least one other cognitive function, such as language, attention or problem solving. The cognitive impairment must be of sufficient severity to compromise daily activities, and if so, that constitutes dementia. Among the dementias, there are multiple causes, and Alzheimer's disease is the most frequent cause, especially in elderly individuals. Therefore, Alzheimer's disease is one type of dementia due to a degenerative disease of the brain and involves certain pathologic features that are characteristic of the disorder.

Addella from Leisuretown, N.J., asked: "I have been diagnosed with mild to moderate 'Visual Alzheimer's.' What can I do to slow the progression?"

Dr. Petersen answered: "Visual Alzheimer's" is a particular variant of general Alzheimer's disease. In people with visual Alzheimer's, the posterior parts of the brain are more affected than the memory parts. Consequently, these individuals will have difficulty with visuospatial functions. Nevertheless, if the underlying cause of the visual problems is due to Alzheimer's pathology, all of the information that is available that pertains to Alzheimer's disease would be applicable to the visual variant of Alzheimer's disease, as well.

Louise from Bethesda, Md., asked: "Is Alzheimer's disease found primarily in those with a genetic link to others with the disease?"

Dr. Petersen answered: Generally speaking, there are two forms of Alzheimer's disease: familial Alzheimer's disease and sporadic Alzheimer's disease. Familial Alzheimer's disease is actually quite rare, but in these unusual circumstances, there is a definite inherited pattern for the disease. Typically, this occurs earlier in life with individuals in their 30s, 40s or 50s being affected. The vast majority of Alzheimer's disease is so-called sporadic or late onset Alzheimer's disease. There may be a genetic component to it, but it is not inherited in a definitive pattern.

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