Note: Each issue of Dimensions features a contribution from one of the Alzheimer's groups in Washington. This article is reprinted with permission from the Alzheimer's Association Western and Central Washington Chapter.
How common is Alzheimer's disease (AD) today, and are we seeing more of this disease now than we used to 25 years ago?
About 10% of people in the U.S. who are over age 65 have some symptoms of AD according to recent statistics; about 47% of people between the ages of 80-100 have some levels of AD. Younger people may also get Alzheimer's disease, even in their 40s or 50s; these age groups are at much lower risk.
We think these proportions are about the same as they have always been; however we now recognize AD as a specific illness and identify the disease earlier. We read and hear much more about this disease thanks to public awareness, education and mass media attention that has helped families understand it better.
How did the disease get the name "Alzheimer's"?
Alzheimer's disease is the name of an organic, neurological brain disease, causing dementia. It is named after the physician Alois Alzheimer, who discovered the disease during autopsy study of the brain of a 52-year-old woman in 1906. Alzheimer's disease causes the symptoms of dementia which progressively get worse over time.
Do men and women get Alzheimer's disease equally or is one group at higher risk?
Both men and women get Alzheimer's disease, however more women do have AD. In general women live longer than men, so there are more women with AD in the highest risk group, between the ages of 80-100. There are also current research studies examining the impact of estrogen loss after menopause for women. This may be another factor relating to why women are at higher risk for AD and other illnesses.
Are their any drugs or medications that stop Alzheimer's disease or help with the symptoms?
There have been two drugs released by the FDA to help slow or stabilize the dementia symptoms of memory loss, confusion and mood changes in AD. Cognex (tacrine) came out first in 1993, then Aricept (donepezil hydrochloride) was released in 1996. These drugs do not stop or cure AD, but if they are effective, can help some individuals with symptoms. These drugs help stop the breakdown and loss of an important neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which is crucial to brain health and function. Several new drugs are pending release with various pharmaceutical companies. To date, there is no drug to cure AD.
There are also some excellent drugs to help stabilize certain behavioral changes that may be distressing to the person with dementia. These medication groups include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, and others for persistent problems. Consult a specialist for recommendations.
What actually happens in the brain with Alzheimer's disease?
To keep it simple, although we do not know how AD begins, we know that the disease process includes a loss of the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is needed for healthy brain functioning. An invasive amyloid protein and other hazardous enzymes may create the disease plaques and tangles which invade and corrode the brain cells. After many years, the brain cells actually shrink and die off where the disease has invaded. This is part of what explains the progressive stages of AD. Someone with AD actually has many less good brain cells to use than the healthy person.
Is Alzheimer's disease a terminal illness?
Yes, AD is a terminal illness and people can die from this disease after the diseased brain eventually shuts down or impairs all the major bodily functions as cells die off. Brain cell loss and disease may also make the immune system weaker for fighting off other illnesses. The average person lives with AD 10 years, although some people may have the disease 15 years or only 5 years depending on their personal health, genetics and other risk factors.
Are there resources for families facing Alzheimer's disease?
There are resources and help available from the Alzheimer's Association, including educational materials, support groups and counseling services. Family caregivers are known to be the second victim of this disease because of the stress and emotional strain involved. Call the Western and Central Washington chapter at 206-363-5500 or 1-800-848-7097.