Alzheimer's On The Rise
September 19, 2003
By Louis Wittig - eCureMe Staff Writer
Physician Reviewed - September 19,2003
According to a study released last month the incidence of Alzheimer's
Disease (AD) - the leading cause of dementia in older Americans - is
set to nearly triple from 4.5 million this year to 13.2 million by the
year 2050. AD is a degenerative, progressive brain disease. Primarily
found among the elderly, one in ten of those over age 65 currently have
the disease, and almost half of those in the 85 and above age group are
afflicted. Despite this, the exact cause of the disease remains elusive.
Tangles and Plaques
What scientists do know is that in Alzheimer's patients, bits of
loose nerve endings called Neurofibrillary tangles and a sticky
protein substance known as Beta Amyloid form in the brain. The
tangles and Beta Amyloid plaques collect around healthy brain cells,
and in the process kill them. As a result, entire areas of the
brain begin to waste away. Parts of the brain that deal with
learning and memory are the first affected, but eventually the
wasting affects nearly every area of the brain. Whether these
abnormalities cause AD or result from it is not yet known.
What these brain cell changes can do to an individual with AD is
quite clear. Early symptoms of AD are quite mild. Individuals
simply start to forget more than they used to. It might take them
a moment to put names to faces, or remember where they put their
car keys. These seemingly innocuous lapses make AD all the more
difficult to diagnose, as most will assume they are a natural part
of getting older.
Unnoticed, the initial symptoms will grow more severe. AD sufferers
will find they are having an increasingly difficult time concentrating,
remembering information they have just learned or performing simple
Eventually, individuals will become less aware of their environment
and will act accordingly; often wearing pajamas outside, or dressing
in shorts in January. Instead of just forgetting where objects are,
they'll forget where they should be. They will also become more
emotional and be prone to mood swings.
At this stage physicians can make a diagnosis of AD using a series of
cognitive tests as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques
that can help identify subtle brain changes. Together these allow for
90% accuracy in AD diagnoses.
After diagnosis, Alzheimer's patients live an average of eight years;
though some with more gradual cases have been known to live up to 20
years after. During this period, an individual's memory will continue
to decline. They may experience hallucinations and delusions as well
as increased incontinence. They may also become more suspicious of
their surroundings and caregivers and undergo a change in normal sleep
cycles. Eventually, as more and more of a patient's brain wastes away,
they may lose their ability to speak, walk and swallow. This
degeneration can eventually lead to the failure of critical organs and
death; however, given the slow progress of the disease, it more often
occurs that the patient succumbs to other conditions associated with
old age ? such as heart disease.
As doctors do not yet know the root cause of AD, risk factors for the
condition aren't well-known - especially controllable risk factors.
Increasing age is positively connected to an increasing risk of
Alzheimer's, as is gender; AD strikes women more often than men. Some
research has associated incidence of AD with a history of major head
injury or low educational achievement; however the reasons behind both
are unknown. Over the past several years, studies have emerged that
point a finger at certain chemicals and minerals that can be absorbed
into the body through diet - such as aluminum, zinc and Aspartame
sweetener. However, the data to support such accusations is inconclusive.
Genetics can play a role in AD, but a small one. Less than 1% of AD
cases are directly linked to heredity.
The Best Defense...
With uncertain risk factors, easily dismissible symptoms and slow but
devastating results AD is hard to guard against. There are a number of
drugs on the market that can combat AD once it has begun, such as Cognex,
Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl. However, these drugs can only slow the
progression of the disease, not stop it and results vary greatly. Ongoing
research holds out the promise of more effective treatments, which, given
the slow course of the disease, may benefit AD sufferers today; but that
could be years away.
In managing your health, preparing for the potential of AD is the most
prudent course of action. Eventually, all AD patients require round-the-clock
care - either by family members or in a managed-care facility. The cost of
that care is not covered by most major insurance plans and can range from
$40,000 to $70,000 a year. Even for patients who are cared for by family
members, the costs often top $12,500 annually. pTo have those sorts of
financial and human resources at hand, should they be necessary, requires
forethought. As you age, developing a plan of care for yourself and your
loved ones (as well as keeping close tabs on your memory abilities and
discussing any unusual lapses with your doctor) ensures that should the
explosion in AD touch your family, you will have the preparation in place
to make the most of it.
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