Alzheimer's is a horrible disease that, as of 2015, affects 5 million people who are over 65. An alarming one in nine people ages 65 and older has Alzheimer's disease. 200,000 people under the age of 9 have early onset Alzheimer's, a sometimes-genetic form that typically comes on at age 50. Additionally, only one out of every four people who have Alzheimer’s has been diagnosed. By 2050, scientists believe that as many as 16 million Americans will suffer from the disease. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. Every 1 in 3 seniors in the United states dies from Alzheimer's, or dementia, a different type of Alzheimer's.
Personally, Alzheimer’s plays a role in my life. My grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was 11. Prior to that, she had dementia for as long as I can remember. My grandma has a different type of Alzheimer’s than some other people. Starting with dementia, she had trouble recalling words. It was evident that in her head, she knew exactly what she was talking about; she could also recall specific details, such as what she was wearing the day I was born, or the name of a teacher she had in middle school. It would just take her a very long time to remember words even as simple as “who” or “where.” Then she was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My grandma remembered who we were for a surprisingly long time. She still smiled, and was able to pick up on a joke in the room. For instance, we went to visit her over Christmas break, and it was clear that she would not be with us for long. But that did not stop her from smiling and laughing. We were sitting in a room making fun of my grandpa, and from hearing and sensing the laughter and positivity present in the room, she was able to laugh along with us and enjoy herself despite not knowing what we were laughing about. She is still able to recognize the voice of her children, my dad and uncle, when they speak to her and my grandpa. My grandma taught me to appreciate the positives no matter how bad the situation. With that in mind, it is evident that Alzheimer’s is a personal topic that is very close to my heart.
In medical terms, Alzheimer’s is the buildup of plaque in the passages in the brain. The plaques and “tangles” which are twisted fibers in the brain cause the damage and killing of nerve cells throughout the brain. Over time, everyone accumulates different types of plaques and tangles in their brain due to aging. What is different about an Alzheimer’s brain is that the plaques and tangles tend to develop in a specific area of the brain connected to memory loss; after infecting that area, the disease moves to the other parts of the brain.
The first problem in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s is finding a proper diagnosis. There is a very fine line between Alzheimer’s and dementia. The difference in the symptoms between dementia and Alzheimer's varies, but usually patients with Alzheimer's experience more symptoms that occur at an earlier stage than the symptoms of dementia. For example, a patient with Alzheimer's will experience sleep disturbances, well-formed visual hallucinations, slowness, and gait imbalance, while dementia patients usually only have memory loss and thinking problems. Although modern technology can often correctly distinguish which disease the patient has, the only way to truly confirm the diagnosis is after death, with an autopsy. This difficult diagnosis results in doctors and researchers having a hard time finding a cure, because they first must make sure that the patient actually does suffer from the disease. Additionally, the growth of the plaque in the brain is impossible to reverse. Unlike a heart valve, which a surgeon can clean out, the brain vessels and connections are too thin, fragile, and frankly unreachable to be cleaned out. Another obstacle in the path to a cure is the lack of knowledge that we actually have about the disease. We know how it works, the symptoms, and what a brain looks like with the disease, thanks to scans and post-mortem examinations, but doctors have yet to figure out what causes it and how it can be prevented.
Several types of medicines have been found to aid in the relief of symptoms and to make patients more comfortable. Brain cells are severely damaged beyond repair as the disease progresses, and as I wrote before, once lost, they cannot be re-created. As loss of brain cells continues, cognitive functions are lost and general cognitive health and sharpness decline. Though current medications are incapable of stopping the onset of Alzheimer's or reversing the damage it causes, they are capable of stimulating certain nerve cells to produce chemicals and hormones that are involved in carrying messages across nerve cells. There have been studies performed that show how, for a certain amount of time, these drugs do lessen symptoms and keep patients happier and declining at a slower rate. In addition to the stimulating drugs, doctors have also found success in prescribing vitamin E in very high doses. Vitamin E has been known to help maintain cognitive and neurological health.
Often, patients of Alzheimer's may become violent or aggressive. This comes from a state of confusion or frustration, often because they can't control what is happening to them, which is upsetting. Doctors will prescribe sedatives and sleeping medication to ease their fear and sedate them enough so they do not realize what they are going through. Shockingly, very few patients actually die from the disease. Typically, patients will die from a complication. It is common that Alzheimer's patients will get pneumonia. At a certain point in the disease, the bonds have grown strong and big enough to affect the area of the brain the controls the immune system, and people suffer from severe immune deficits, resulting in the ability to catch a cold or flu easily, or an infection like pneumonia, which for elderly patients is typically deadly. Patients often also lack the ability to speak when there is something is wrong. Unable to communicate properly, they often let problems go unnoticed until it is too late.
Clinical trials, while risky, serve to provide the best hope for patients and their families. There are thousands of clinical trials across the country, and while none have yet been successful, hopefully there will soon be a cure to save the millions of people affected.