Alzheimer's Disease Alzheimer! |s disease is a slow, progressive, and degenerative disease of the brain. This disease is marked by a gradual loss of memory and other cognitive functions. 'Alzheimer's Disease is also known as the most common cause of dementia -- a general term referring to the loss of memory and the ability to think, reason, function, and behave properly' (Medina, 1999). It primarily affects adults in their 60's or older and eventually destroys a person's ability to perform simple, routine tasks or even to care for themselves. Statistics show that 'as many as 10 percent of all people 65 years of age and older have Alzheimer's,' and that approximately '50 percent of all people 85 or older also have the disease' (WebMD, n. d.
). Originally it was thought to be a rare condition affecting only young people, and was referred to as pre-senile dementia. Today late-onset Alzheimer! |s disease is recognized as the most common cause of the loss of mental function in those aged 65 and over. 'Alzheimer! |s in people in their 30 s, 40 s, and 50 s, called early-onset Alzheimer! |s disease, occurs much less frequently, accounting for less than 10 percent of the estimated 4 million Alzheimer! |s cases in the United States' (Encarta, 2004). Alzheimer's disease advances in stages, progressing from mild absentmindedness and cognitive impairment to widespread loss of mental abilities. In advanced Alzheimer's, people become dependent on others for every aspect of their care.
The most common cause of death among Alzheimer's patients is infection. Even though scientists are still learning about Alzheimer! |s, there is no cure. Alzheimer's disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor. 'In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness.
He found abnormal clumps (now called plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called tangles) within the brain' (ADEAR, 2004). Scientists have found that tangles and plaques cause the neurons in the brains of Alzheimer! |s patients to shrink and eventually die. They start in the memory and language centers and finally invade throughout the brain. 'This widespread neuron degeneration leaves gaps in the brain! |s messaging network that may interfere with communication between cells, causing some of the symptoms of Alzheimer! |s disease' (Cutler & Sramek, 1996). Today, these certain plaques and tangles found in the brain are considered to be the tell tale signs of Alzheimer's disease. The cause of Alzheimer! |s disease still remains a mystery today.
Researchers are learning about what happens to the brain as we grow old, what happens to brain cells in Alzheimer's Disease, which genes are associated, and many other factors that may be significant. Some of the most promising Alzheimer! |s research is being conducted in the field of genetics to learn the role a family history of the disease has in its development. Scientists have learned that 'people who are carriers of a specific version of the apo lipoprotein E gene (apoE gene), found on chromosome 19, are several times more likely to develop Alzheimer! |s than carriers of other versions of the apoE gene. Nearly half of all late-onset Alzheimer! |s patients have the less common apoE 4 version and research has shown that this gene plays a role in Alzheimer! |s disease' (Cutler & Sramek, 1996).
Scientists have also found evidence that 'variations in one or more genes located on chromosomes 1, 10, and 14 may increase a person! |s risk for Alzheimer! |s disease' (Cutler & Sramek, 1996). Researchers have made similar strides in the investigation of early-onset Alzheimer! |s disease. 'A series of genetic mutations in patients with early-onset Alzheimer! |s has been linked to the production of amyloid precursor protein, the protein in plaques that may be implicated in the destruction of neurons. One mutation is particularly interesting to geneticists because it occurs on a gene involved in the genetic disorder Down syndrome' (Cutler & Sramek, 1996). People with Down syndrome usually develop these plaques and tangles in their brains as they get older. Researchers believe that learning more about the similarities between Down syndrome and Alzheimer! |s may help us to further understand the genetic elements of this disease.
As we all know, some change in memory loss as we grow older is quite normal; however, in Alzheimer's disease the simple lapse in memory is far greater. The Alzheimer's Association (n. d. ) believes 'that it is critical for people with dementia and their families to receive information, care and support as early as possible'. Here are the most common warning signs of Alzheimer's disease: (1) Memory Loss, (2) Difficulty performing familiar task, (3) Problems with language, (4) Disorientation with regards to time and place, (5) Poor or decreased judgment, (6) Problems with abstract thinking, (7) Misplacing things, (8) Changes in mood or behavior, (9) Changes in personality and (10) Loss of initiative (Willett, 2002). A person may not experience all of these symptoms nor are they in any order.
Nevertheless, the first warning sign of Alzheimer's disease is often forgetfulness. We all experience a short memory lapse known as forgetfulness, but to be considered a warning sign, the lapse needs to last at least 6 months. According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research (2004), 'there are three distinct stages typically referred to as: mild, moderate, and severe'. The symptoms commonly seen in each stage are listed below, but it's important to know that there may be some overlap among the stages, and that people may not experience all of these symptoms. Symptoms by Stage of Disease Mild Symptoms! Confusion and memory loss fc Disorientation; getting lost in familiar surroundings 3 Problems with routine tasks 4 Changes in personality and judgment 5 Onset of the disease occurs at this stage and it may be four or more years until a diagnosis of Alzheimer! |s disease is established Moderate Symptoms 6 Difficulty with activities of daily living, such as eating and bathing 7 Anxiety, suspiciousness, agitation 8 Sleep disturbances 9 Wandering, pacing 10 Difficulty recognizing family and friends 11 This stage may last from 3 to 10 years.
Symptoms of the disease become so apparent at this stage that diagnosis is usually made at this stage. Severe Symptoms 12 Loss of speech 13 Loss of appetite; weight loss 14 Loss of bladder and bowel control 15 Total dependence on caregiver 16 The third or severe stage may last one to three years Although no single test can be used to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, 'specialists can accurately identify the disease 9 out of 10 times by using a combination of tests and evaluations' (Peterson, 2002). Diagnosis begins by ruling out other factors that cause memory loss, such as stroke, depression, alcoholism, head trauma, and the use of certain prescription drugs. The patient is often put through an examination, specialized brain scans, and they may also be given a detailed evaluation called a neuro psychological examination. This type of examination is designed to evaluate a patient! |s ability to perform specific mental tasks (ADEAR, 2004).
Unfortunately a proper diagnosis of Alzheimer's can only be made from a patient whom is deceased. In order to properly identify the disease, researchers need to conduct an autopsy on the brain tissue to reveal evidence of the plaques and tangles that Alois Alzheimer first saw many decades ago. At this moment there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, no way of slowing the progression, and no treatment to reverse the effects. 'The major focus of drug treatment for Alzheimer's disease is to improve cognitive abilities - such as memory and thinking -- and slow the progression of these symptoms' (ADEAR, 2004). The current treatments used today cannot cure or stop the deterioration of the disease, but can offer some improvement with symptoms. There are a number of new treatments still in development, so there will be more options available in the near future.
According to The Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation (2004), five drugs have been approved by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. 'Exelon (approved in 2000), Aricept (approved in 1996) and Connex (approved in 1993) belong to a class of drugs known as cholinesterase inhibitors'.
None of these drugs will halt the progression of the disease. Each acts in a different way to increase the brain's supply of acetylcholine, a chemical in the brain that facilitates communication among nerve cells and is important for memory. People with Alzheimer's appear to have a shortage of acetylcholine. 'The newest drug, Galant amine, known as Remi nyl (approved in 2001), makes the brain cells more receptive to acetylcholine which boosts the brain's supply' (Willett, 2002).
Another drug, 'Name nda (approved in 2003) shields brain cells from overexposure to another neurotransmitter called glutamate'. Scientists believe that the excess levels of glutamate seem to aid in the death of brain cells amongst Alzheimer's patients. 'There is no known way to prevent Alzheimer's disease. However, scientists believe that antioxidants such as Vitamin E and anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen may reduce the risk of contracting the disease' (Willett, 2002).
The research of Alzheimer! |s and a cure for the disease has been increasingly important. Organizations like the Ronald & Nancy Reagan Research Institute have lent grants to help aid in finding a cure (H. R. S. A. awards).
Since 1994 when former president Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with disease, it has been a major news headline ever since. There are thousands of organizations and webpage! |s on the internet that are filled with valuable information helping the public be aware of this disease, what the signs are, and where to go for help. With our baby-boomers aging, the disease is sure to emerge more in the next couple of years. Alzheimer! |s disease has touched many people since its discovery by Alois Alzheimer. Its effects on the brain cause its victims to lose some, if not most of their memory. This causes the patient to forget things such as who and where they are, who their relatives are, how to get home, or even when or how to eat.
It is a personal tragedy for the patient as well as for those whom love and bear the burden of caring for them. Alzheimer! |s disease is a slow, progressive disease with no known cure. The treatment for Alzheimer's is still in the early stages but there are many drug treatments available which help slow its progression, and help with cognitive functions. As our population ages, Alzheimer! |s is only a tragedy that will affect more and more people.