What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a medical condition that disrupts the way the brain works. This is the most common cause of dementia in older people. AD affects the parts of the brain that control memory, language and thought. Though the risk of getting the disease increases significantly with age, it is not a regular part of aging. The cause of the disease is still unknown and, at present, there is no cure.
The AD is named after the German psychiatrist Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer described the fatal changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of rare mental disease. He identified abnormal deposits (currently called senile or neuritic plaques) and tangled bundles of nerve fibers (presently called neurofibrillary tangles). These brain plaques and tangles are the characteristic brain changes due to the AD.
It is estimated that currently, 5.7 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million. Every 65 seconds someone in the United States develops the disease. Usually, it begins after the age of 65, and the risk goes up with age. While younger people may also have an AD, it is much less frequent.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
- Initial mild forgetfulness;
- Confusion with names and simple mathematical issues;
- Forgetfulness to do easy everyday tasks, i.e., washing their hands;
- Problems with speaking, understanding, reading, and writing;
- Behavioral and personality changes;
- Anxious, aggressive, or aimless behavior.
It does not exist a definitive test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in living patients. However, neurologists in specialized research facilities can diagnose AD with accuracy up to 90%. This diagnosis is made using the following information:
- A complete medical history;
- Basic medical tests (i.e., blood, urine tests);
- Neuropsychological tests (i.e., memory, language, problem-solving tests);
- Brain scans (i.e., MRI scan, PET scan or CT scan).
- Research for Possible Risk Factors
Scientists are trying to find out what causes AD and how it can be prevented. The list may not be full or definite. Anyway, it is a guide to possible risk factors considered through profound research:
Environmental elements – aluminum, zinc, and other metals have been detected in the brain tissue of people with the AD. However, it isn’t known yet whether they cause AD, or build up in the brain as a result of the AD.
Viruses that may cause the changes seen in the brain tissue of AD patients are currently being studied.
Age and family history are the only known risk factors. Serious head injuries and lower levels of education may also have influence. Probably, the AD is not caused by any one factor. Most likely, several factors together react differently in each person. Unfortunately, no blood or urine tests currently exist that can predict AD.
Alzheimer’s disease develops in several stages – from mild forgetfulness to severe dementia. The course of the disease and the decline rate vary from person to person. The period from the beginning of symptoms to death can be from 5 to 20 years.
Currently, there is no effective treatment for the AD that can stop the progression. However, there are experimental drugs that have shown relieving symptoms in some patients. Medications can help control behavioral symptoms, thus making patients more comfortable and easier to manage for caregivers. Research efforts focus on alternative care programs that provide support for the patient and relief to the caregiver.
83% of the help provided to older adults in the United States is from family members, friends, and other unpaid caregivers. Almost half of the caregivers, who provide support to older adults, do it for someone with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. In comparison with caregivers of people without dementia, twice as many caregivers of those with this condition declare severe physical, emotional and financial difficulties.
Cost to nation
Alzheimer’s disease places a significant burden on the healthcare system. The annual costs exceed a quarter of a trillion dollars. For the current year, 2018, the direct costs to American society of caring for those with Alzheimer’s are estimated at $277 billion. Unless something is done, in 2050, Alzheimer’s will cost $1.1 trillion.
Dementia is one of the costliest health conditions in society.
People with Alzheimer’s or other dementia stay at the hospital twice more than other older people per year.
Patients with Alzheimer’s or other dementia are more likely to have other chronic conditions.
People with Alzheimer’s or other dementia compose a significant proportion of all seniors who get daily services and nursing home care.