The Heartbreak of Alzheimer's Diesase

The Heartbreak ofAlzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is an incurable degenerative disease of the brain, specifically affecting the nerve cells of the frontal and temporal lobes of the cerebrum. The disease was first described in 1906 by German neurologist Alois Alzheimer, who discovered the condition during an autopsy of a 55-year-old patient who had died with severe dementia. During the autopsy Alzheimer discovered abnormalities in the brain we now know to be associated with the disease.

Because it used to be thought normal people would lose her mental faculties with advanced age, the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease was once applied only in cases where there was a loss of mental faculties at an early age, say in one's 30s through 60s. Alzheimer's cases that occurred in people 70 or over were chalked up to “senile dementia.” We now know however, Alzheimer's disease is the largest single case of dementia regardless of age.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include:

  • memory loss

  • language impairment

  • problems with visual spatial abilities

  • personality changes (ranging from apathy to irritability)

  • depression

  • delusions

  • hallucinations

There may be alternating periods of increase and decline of the severity of the symptoms, but the symptoms inevitably worsen, and there is no known cure. In September 1993, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called tacrine that, although not a cure, may relieve symptoms in certain patients.

Anyone who show signs of confusion, forgetfulness, or other unusual behavior should be medically evaluated without delay. There are many conditions that occur during aging process that, at first glance, give the mistaken appearance of early Alzheimer's. Many of these conditions are temporary and reversible if properly treated.

The risk of developing Alzheimer's disease is less than one in 100 before age 50 but increases sharply thereafter, to one in 14 at age 65, one in four at age 80, and almost one in three at age 90. People having immediate family members with Alzheimer's are considered to have an increased risk of getting the disease. Researchers believe both genetic and environmental factors may have a major contributory role in the disease.

Today, Alzheimer's affects some 2 million Americans. The cause of the disease is still unknown, but we do know the disease is accompanied by such abnormalities as:

  • neurofibrillary tangles-fibrous structures within the nerve cells

  • neuritic plaques

  • accumulation of aluminum and new neuritic plaques and tangled neurons

  • decreases in brain chemicals neurotransmitters-substances such as acetylcholine, serotonin, somatostatin, and norepinephrine

What we don't know yet is whether these abnormalities cause Alzheimer's disease or whether the disease causes these abnormalities. The answer to this “chicken and egg” question may one day yield clues pointing us toward a cure for this tragic disease.


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