While searching through the top causes for death around the world (pretty morbid, huh?), I was a little surprised to come across Alzheimers. A form of dementia, this disease is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States, and is rapidly on the rise. It is the most severe form of dementia, and is marked by its loss of functioning strong enough to interfere with day to day routines.
Pathology: Alzheimer’s, like all other dementias, is caused by the degeneration of healthy brain tissue. The progression is slow, sometimes spanning over a decade. Although currently we do not know what causes Alzheimer’s, we do know that it kills brain cells at a rate too fast to regenerate. The following theories have attempted to explain this disease:
- The role of plaques and tangles: The autopsied brains of those with Alzheimer’s show an abnormal amount of plaques (clumps of brain cells with the protein beta-amyloid) and tangles (the inner support of the brain comprised of the protein tau). Some scientists believe that these abnormal levels of plaques and tangles kills surrounding neurons.
- Inflammation of the brain: Scientists still cannot determine whether the inflamed brain accelerates or decelerates the progression of Alzheimer’s.
As time progresses, the affected person will continually lose normal functioning. Eventually, the person will be unable to recognize close family members and friends, and will be unable to perform basic tasks like eating and drinking. Many people who die of Alzheimer’s ultimately die from starvation from being unable to eat, or from an acquired infection from lack of personal care.
- Forgetfulness that increases over time
- Loss of language, or difficulty communicating
- Inability to find simple solutions to common problems (ex. household repairs, etc)
- Changes in personality, including mood swings
- Difficulty performing routine daily tasks like cooking, cleaning, and bathing
Testing: If suspected to have Alzheimer’s, a doctor will ask the patient to perform various cognitive and memory tests. They will also ask for family history, as this is a fairly genetic disease.
Treatment: There are currently not treatments available for Alzheimer’s. While some may react to some medications for about a year or so, there are no long-term solutions, and the medications currently available do not help everyone.
Coping: Although I have never included this section in any other article, I believe Alzheimer’s is unique in how much the disease affects not only the mental health of the neurons, but also the mental/ emotional health of the affected individual. Because of the constant forgetfulness, and the grim outlook for the person affected, it is normal for a person with Alzheimer’s to experience sadness and anger, confusion, depression, and frustration. It is important for the affected individual to have a strong support group, as well as a steady, calm home environment. Many people with Alzheimer’s also benefit from support groups to share the grief and confusion they feel.
Morbidity (# affected by disease): It is estimated that over 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, and that approximately 24 million people worldwide are affected as well.
Mortality (# of deaths): About 70,000 Americans die annually from this disease. The average amount of time from diagnosis until death is approximately 8 years.
Epidemiology: This disease varies greatly by age rather than location. 2-3% of 65-year olds have the disease, while 25-50% are affected by the age of 85. It is important to note that developing Alzheimer’s is not a normal stage of the aging process.
- The disease was named after German scientist Alois Alzheimer, who first discovered brain plaques and tangles in 1906 after dissecting a woman’s brain who had dementia.
- Medical treatment costs exceed $100 billion annually for this disease alone.
- Former President Ronald Reagan and actor Charlton Heston were both affected by this disease.
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