Alzheimer’s: What Is Alzheimer’s?

Misplaced keys. Forgotten names. The frantic search for a car in a parking lot. In the hustle and bustle of daily life, many of us have experienced these mental lapses at one time or another. We shrug them off and move on, chalking up our forgetfulness to fatigue, stress, or our busy, harried lives.

In some people however, the keys are not only misplaced, but they turn up in strange places like the cookie jar or bathroom drawer. Names of people they know well frequently escape their memories as do names of familiar everyday objects like forks, hair¬brushes, and pens. Neighborhoods where they’ve lived for many years become terrifying labyrinths of confusion. These people may have early stage Alzheimer’s,

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia in people 65 and older. Dementia refers to any of a number of brain disor¬ders that cause changes in the way your brain functions. To the person experiencing Alzheimer’s, the resulting behavioral and cog¬nitive changes can be baffling, even frightening, as the disease slowly robs you of your ability to remember, think, and eventually, perform the functions of daily living. You may experience confusion about the day of the week, or the hour of the day. You may have trouble following simple conversations or directions. Familiar places like your workplace or neighborhood may begin to feel confounding and confusing.

Currently, estimates suggest there are 4.5 to 5 million people who have Alzheimer’s in the United States. Approximately three percent of people between ages 65 and 74 have the disease, and nearly half of people over the age of 85 have it. Occasionally, the disease will emerge in adults in their 40s and 50s in a form known as familial Alzheimer’s. But Alzheimer’s is not an inevitable fact of aging. Alzheimer’s is a complicated disease that scientists are working hard to understand.

In recent years, significant increases in life expectancy have lead to a rise in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s, which has made Alzheimer’s a more pressing issue and a serious health concern. As people continue to live longer, more are expected to be diagnosed with the disease. In fact, if no preventive treatments are developed and the population continues to age at its current rate, researchers estimate that by the year 2050, 13.2 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s. That means the numbers of new cases of AD every year will double between 1995 and 2050, according to the National Institute on Aging. In hard numbers, the numbers of new cases will climb from 377,000 in 1995 to 959,000 in the year 2050. By then, nearly 19 million Americans will be over the age of 85.

In recent years, society’s understanding of this disease has increased exponentially. Consider the following facts from the National Institutes on Aging’s report, “Unraveling the Mystery,” which was written in 2002 and published in December 2003:

• Fifteen years earlier, in 1987, no genes had been identified as a cause, of AD. Today, researchers have pinpointed the three major genes involved in early-onset AD, the kind that occurs in people under the age of 65. We also have identified a gene involved in the development of late-onset AD, the more common kind that strikes after age 65.

• Ten years ago, the disease could not be reproduced in animal models. Today, scientists have created special kinds of mice that produce the hallmark beta amyloid plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

• Only five years ago, the National Institutes of Health did not fund any clinical trials that explored ways to prevent AD. Today, those trials are underway in the quest to pre¬vent this disease.

• As recently as 2001, scientists had no idea how plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, the two hallmarks of the disease, influenced each other. A year later, thanks to animal models of mice, researchers were able to determine that plaques can indeed influence the development of tangles.

And the breakthroughs don’t appear to be slowing down. Reports of advances in the study of Alzheimer’s have become commonplace on the news and the Internet, and tremendous resources have been allocated to a better understanding of the disease.

Just last year, in October 2004, the National Institute on Aging, in conjunction with several other federal agencies, corpo¬rations, and non-profit organizations, announced a $60 million five-year partnership to look at neuroimaging techniques and other biological markers to measure the progression of AD and help identify people at the highest risk for AD. The answers would allow researchers to test the effectiveness of new therapies.

Along with all the scientific advances have been several highly publicized battles against Alzheimer’s by well-known people like former president Ronald Reagan, writer Iris Murdoch, and actor and activist Charlton Heston. As a society we are slowly chipping away at the stigma of a disease once considered rare and revealing a national health problem that demands full attention, adequate resources, and most of all, compassion and understanding.

If you have just been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s, you may be feeling fearful about the future and concerned about how your loved ones will care for you. You may be frightened and frustrated by your inability to do simple tasks. These are all nor¬mal reactions to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

But being diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s has dis¬tinct advantages in this era of greater knowledge. New medica¬tions may help slow the progress of the disease, improve your quality of life, and delay the need for nursing home care. It may help you develop behavioral strategies that will help you cope later on as the disease progresses. An early diagnosis also can help you and your family make vital decisions about caregiving, financial and legal matters, and other issues that may become too difficult to deal with later on.

Most important, getting diagnosed in the early stages will give you the time you need to educate yourself about Alzheimer’s, to adjust to your condition, and to locate important resources in the community that can help you and your loved ones get through the coming years.

The key is developing strategies that will help make the rigors and routines of your daily life a little easier, but also still allow you to live a life that has meaning, purpose, and quality. And perhaps that is the greatest development of all, the understanding that people who have Alzheimer’s, especially those in the early stages, are still fully capable of leading meaningful lives and that much can be done to improve their well-being.

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