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Facts About Alzheimer's Disease

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"Alzheimer's Disease" is the term used to describe a dementing disorder marked by certain brain changes, regardless of the age of onset. Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging - and it is not something that inevitable happens in later life. The disorder,  affects a small but significant percentage of older Americans. A very small minority of alzheimer's patients are under 50 years of age. However, most are over 65.


Alzheimer's Disease is the exception, rather than the rule, in old age. Only 5 to 6 percent of older people are afflicted by alzheimer's disease or a related dementia - but this means approximately 5.4 million Americans have one of these debilitating disorders. Research indicates that 1 percent of the population aged 65-75 has severe dementia, increasing to 7 percent of those aged 75-85 and to 25 percent of those 85 or older. As our population ages and the number of alzheimer's patients increases, costs of care will rise as well.


Alzheimer's Disease disrupts the communication process in the brain, eventually destroying the synapses and neurons and causing a permanent disruption of the communication process.

The onset of Alzheimer's disease is usually very slow and gradual, seldom occurring before age 65. Over time, however, it follows a progressively more serious course. Among the symptoms that typically develop, none is unique to Alzheimer's disease at its various stages. It is therefore essential for suspicious changes to be thoroughly evaluated before they become inappropriately or negligently labeled Alzheimer's disease.

Problems of memory, particularly recent or short-term memory, are common early in the course of the disease. For example, the individual may, on repeated occasions, forget to turn off the iron or may not recall which of the morning's medicines were taken. Mild personality changes, such as less spontaneity or a sense of apathy and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions, may occur early in the illness. As the disease progresses, problems in abstract thinking or in intellectual functioning develop. You may notice the individual beginning to have trouble with figures when working on bills, with understanding what is being read, or with organizing the days work. Further disturbances in behavior and appearance may also be seen at this point, such as agitation, irritability, quarrelsomeness, and diminishing ability to dress appropriately.

The average course of the disease from the time it is recognized to death is about 6 to 8 years, but it may range from under 2 years to over 20 years. Those who develop the disorder later in life may die from other illnesses (such as heart disease) before Alzheimer's disease reaches its final and most serious stage.

It's important to recognize the symptoms early. "It's critically important when we have effective drugs to intervene as quickly as possible," said Marilyn Albert, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who helped formulate the new guidelines. "There could be drugs available now, but we're using them too late in the disease course.

Current FDA-approved Alzheimer's drugs are aimed at supporting the brain's communication process through two different mechanisms:

1) Cholinesterase inhibitors work by slowing down the process that breaks down a key neurotransmitter. Donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine and tacrine are cholinesterase inhibitors.

2) Memantine, the fifth Alzheimer's drug, is an NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor antagonist, which works by regulating the activity of glutamate, an important neurotransmitter in the brain involved in learning and memory. 

There is no way at the present time to determine who may get Alzheimer's disease. The main risk factor for the disease is increased age. The rates of the disease increase markedly with advancing age, with 25 percent of people over 85 suffering from Alzheimer's or other severe dementia.

Other things often noticeable may be depression, severe uneasiness, and paranoia or delusions that accompany or result from the disease, but they can often be alleviated by appropriate treatments.

Alzheimer's disease has emerged as one of the great mysteries in modern day medicine, with a growing number of clues but still no complete answers as to its cause. Researchers have come up with a number of theories about the cause of this disease but so far the mystery remains unresolved.

Because of the many other disorders that are often confused with Alzheimer's disease, a comprehensive clinical evaluation is essential to arrive at a correct diagnosis of any symptoms that look similar to those of Alzheimer's disease. In most cases, the family physician can be consulted about the best way to get the necessary examinations.

While Alzheimer's disease remains a mystery, with its cause and cure not yet found, there is considerable excitement and hope about new findings that are unfolding in numerous research settings.