Was Alois Alzheimer Right or Wrong?

Why senile dementia was misclassified as "Alzheimer's disease," and how it confused the field.

Ming Chen
May 31, 2007
<figcaption>Alois Alzheimer Credit: © National Library of Medicine</figcaption>
Alois Alzheimer Credit: © National Library of Medicine

In 1907, Aloysius "Alois" Alzheimer presented a rare case of dementia in a 51-year-old woman. This "presenile dementia" (younger than 60) was thought distinct enough from "senile dementia" (older than 65) to warrant a new name, thus it became known as, "Alzheimer's disease" (AD).

In the 1970s, however, some researchers argued that because of their similar symptoms and diagnostic hallmarks, "Alzheimer disease and senile dementia should be considered a single disease."1 This would mean that Alzheimer was wrong. Since then, AD research has been directed at finding a pathogenic cause, be it genetic, metabolic, toxic, or some other causative factor. But after 30 years, while the cause for presenile dementia, or early-onset familial AD, has been essentially found in the form of three mutant genes, the cause for senile dementia, or late-onset sporadic AD, remains unknown.2 Perhaps Alzheimer was right,...


1. R. Katzman, "The prevalence and malignancy of Alzheimer's disease: a major killer," Arch Neurol, 33:217-8, 1976. 2. M. Chen, H.L. Fernandez, "Alzheimer's disease revisited 25 years later: Is it a "disease" or senile condition?" Front Biosci, 6:e30-40 2001. 3. P.J. Fox et al., "Defining dementia: social and historical background of Alzheimer disease," Genet Test, 3:13-9 1999. 4. D.A. Drachman, "Aging of the brain, entropy, and Alzheimer disease," Neurology, 67:1340-52, 2006. 5. R.H. Swerdlow, "Is aging part of Alzheimer's disease, or is Alzheimer's disease part of aging?" Neurobiol Aging, (Epub ahead of print) July 28, 2006 doi:10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2006.06.021