No one factor appears to cause Alzheimer's disease. Instead, scientists believe that it may take a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors to trigger the onset of symptoms. While the causes of Alzheimer's are poorly understood, its effect on brain tissue is clear. Alzheimer's disease damages and kills brain cells.
Two types of brain cell (neuron) damage are common in people who have Alzheimer's:
Plaques. Clumps of a normally harmless protein called beta-amyloid may interfere with communication between brain cells. Although the ultimate cause of neuron death in Alzheimer's isn't known, mounting evidence suggests that the abnormal processing of beta-amyloid protein may be the culprit.
Tangles. The internal support structure for brain cells depends on the normal functioning of a protein called tau. In people with Alzheimer's, threads of tau protein undergo alterations that cause them to become twisted. Many researchers believe this may seriously damage neurons, causing them to die.