Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease affects over 35 million people worldwide. By 2050 the disease (AD) is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people internationally. There are currently no treatments that stop or reverse the symptoms.  This incurable and terminal disease was first described by Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist. That was in 1906. Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative form of dementia. It is also the most common. The condition is understood to be caused by plaque acquisition and tangles in the brain’s grey matter.  The disease is often diagnosed in people over 65 years of age but there is also the less prevalent early-onset Alzheimer’s which can begin while people are still in their 40’s.

Each individual experiences their own unique course with the disease but there are many common symptoms. It is not unusual for the earliest signs to be mistaken for stress or ‘age-related’ mishaps. Initially  people lose the ability to make new memories. This can simply be seen as a difficulty recalling recent events. Diagnosis is usually confirmed with behavioral and cognitive assessments but is often followed by a brain scan. If necessary actual brain tissue can be examined but that doesn’t usually happen until after death.

Any current treatments can only address some of the cognitive symptoms but still have many adverse side effects. Attention to lifestyle habits like maintaining healthy levels of mental stimulation, exercise, and a balanced diet can help delay those cognitive symptoms but not the brain pathology itself.  As the condition worsens patients become dependent and care can be costly and burdensome.

In advanced stages of the disease people will be confused, irritable, aggressive and moody. They will experience language and long-term memory loss as well as social skills. In general people develop a tendency to withdraw as their senses decline and their bodily functions are lost. Ultimately this leads to death. Individual prognosis is a difficult thing to assess. The duration of the disease varies. AD is silently developing for an indeterminate period of time before becoming fully apparent. So unfortunately it can continue undiagnosed for years. Life expectancy after diagnosis is about 7 years. Less than 3% of individuals live more than 14 years after diagnosis.

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