Understanding Alzheimer's disease
Occasionally forget where you put your car keys? We all do. But imagine being unable to recognize your spouse’s face or remember your children’s names.
An estimated 5.3 million Americans struggle with this grim reality — and as the age of the baby boomer generation increases, so will the number.
“Alzheimer’s is the most common degenerative disease of the elderly — of epidemic proportions,” says Dr. Liana Apostolova, neurologist and researcher at highly rated UCLA Health System in Los Angeles.
The disease is thought to be caused by the clumping of beta-amyloid and tau proteins that build up like plaque in the brain tissue. The plaque has a toxic effect on the brain, killing neurons and resulting in cognitive impairment.
This actually causes brain matter to shrink and the crevices of the brain to become deeper and wider — resulting in memory loss and eventually death.
Apostolova says when a patient dies of Alzheimer's, you can actually see the plaque buildup in the brain with a microscope. "It's a disease that engulfs the brain," she says. "The effects are devastating. It robs someone of themselves."
Stages of Alzheimer's
- In the beginning, the patient displays a gradual decline in the ability to retain new information.
- As the damage to the brain grows, confusion, disorganized thinking, impaired judgment, difficulty expressing oneself and disorientation of time, space and location occurs. This can lead to dangerous behavior such as wandering and socially inappropriate actions.
- People in the advanced stages need assistance with daily activities such as eating, using the bathroom, dressing and bathing.
- Once a person is in the final phase, they are bed-bound and reliant on constant care — due to losing the ability to communicate and recognize their loved ones.
Potential risk factors for Alzheimer's disease
- Age. As people get older, their brain's ability to dispose of the proteins that cause the death of neurons decreases.
- Poor diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in fish oil.
- Head trauma, accompanied with loss of consciousness.
- Genetics and family history. While there isn't a single gene responsible, a combination of genes may be to blame.
- Lack of activity, exercise and education. Keeping your brain and body busy seems to delay the onset.
Treatments for Alzheimer's
There's currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but the FDA has approved medications that may prove helpful. Drugs like Namenda and Aricept slow down the rate of decline in thinking and memory loss, and increase the patients' ability to perform daily activities.
"We can't stop the disease or the progression," Apostolova says. "But we can improve the symptoms."
Apostolova says there may be greater hope for the future. A vaccine designed to clear the plaque caused by the beta-amyloid protein is currently in trial, and medications are being developed that may prevent the proteins from clumping together.
But for now, Apostolova says the goal is to detect Alzheimer's as quickly as possible. "Early diagnosis is extremely important," she says. "It's what we researchers are focusing on now."