Facts About Alzheimer's Disease
"Alzheimer's Disease" is the term used to describe
a dementing disorder marked by certain brain changes, regardless
of the age of onset. Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part
of aging - - and it is not something that inevitable happens
in later life.
Rather, it is one of the dementing disorders, a group of
brain diseases that lead to the loss of mental and physical
functions. The disorder, whole cause is unknown, affects a
small but significant percentage of older Americans. A very
small minority of alzheimer's patients are under 50 years
of age. However, most are over 65.
Alzheimer's disease is the exception, rather than the rule,
in old age. Only 5 to 6 percent of older people are afflicted
by alzheimer's disease or a related dementia - - but this
means approximately 3 to 4 million Americans have one of these
debilitating disorders. Research indicates that 1 percent
of the population aged 65-75 has severe dementia, increasing
to 7 percent of those aged 75-85 and to 25 percent of those
85 or older. As out population ages and the number of alzheimer's
patients increases, costs of care will rise as well.
Although Alzheimer's disease is not yet curable or reversible,
there are ways to alleviate symptoms and suffering and to
assist families. And not every person with this illness must
necessarily move to a nursing home. Many thousands of patients
- - especially those in the early stages of the disease -
- are cared for by their families in the community. Indeed,
one of the most important aspects of medical management is
family education and family support services. When, or whether,
to transfer a patient to a nursing home is a decision to be
carefully considered by the family.
The onset of Alzheimer's disease is usually very slow and
gradual, seldom occurring before age 65. Over time, however,
it follows a progressively more serious course. Among the
symptoms that typically develop, none is unique to Alzheimer's
disease at its various stages. It is therefore essential for
suspicious changes to be thoroughly evaluated before they
become inappropriately or negligently labeled Alzheimer's
Problems of memory, particularly recent or short-term memory,
are common early in the course of the disease. For example,
the individual may, on repeated occasions, forget to turn
off the iron or may not recall which of the morning's medicines
were taken. Mild personality changes, such as less spontaneity
or a sense of apathy and a tendency to withdraw from social
interactions, may occur early in the illness. As the disease
progresses, problems in abstract thinking or in intellectual
functioning develop. You may notice the individual beginning
to have trouble with figures when working on bills, with understanding
what is being read, or with organizing the days work. Further
disturbances in behavior and appearance may also be seen at
this point, such as agitation, irritability, quarrelsomeness,
and diminishing ability to dress appropriately.
The average course of the disease from the time it is recognized
to death is about 6 to 8 years, but it may range from under
2 years to over 20 years. Those who develop the disorder later
in life may die from other illnesses (such as heart disease)
before Alzheimer's disease reaches its final and most serious
The reaction of an individual to the illness and the way
he or she copes with it also varies and may depend on such
factors as lifelong personality patterns and the nature and
severity of the stress in the immediate environment.
As research on Alzheimer's disease continues, scientists
are now describing other abnormal chemical changes associated
with the disease. These include nerve cell degeneration in
certain areas of the brain. Also, defects in certain blood
vessels supplying blood to the brain have been studied as
a possible contributing factor.
There is no way at the present time to determine who may
get Alzheimer's disease. The main risk factor for the disease
is increased age. The rates of the disease increase markedly
with advancing age, with 25 percent of people over 85 suffering
from Alzheimer's or other sever dementia.
Other things often noticeable may be depression, severe
uneasiness, and paranoia or delusions that accompany or result
from the disease, but they can often be alleviated by appropriate
Alzheimer's disease has emerged as one of the great mysteries
in modern day medicine, with a growing number of clues but
still no answers as to its cause. Researchers have come up
with a number of theories about the cause of this disease
but so far the mystery remains unresolved.
Because of the many other disorders that are often confused
with Alzheimer's disease, a comprehensive clinical evaluation
is essential to arrive at a correct diagnosis of any symptoms
that look similar to those of Alzheimer's disease. In most
cases, the family physician can be consulted about the best
way to get the necessary examinations.
Stress on the family can take a toll on both the patient
and the caregiver alike. Caregivers are usually family members
- - either spouses or children - - and usually wives and daughters.
As time passes and the burden mounts, it not only places the
mental health of family caregivers at risk. It also diminishes
their ability to provide care to the diseased patient. Hence,
assistance to the family as a whole must be considered.
As the disease progresses, families experience increasing
anxiety and pain at seeing unsettling changes in a loved one,
and they commonly feel guilt over not being able to do enough.
The prevalence of reactive depression among family members
in this situation is disturbingly high - - caregivers are
chronically stressed and are much more likely to suffer from
depression than the average person. If caregivers have been
forced to retire from positions outside the home. They feel
progressively more isolated and no longer productive members
The likelihood, intensity, and duration of depression among
caregivers can all be lowered through available interventions.
For example, to the extent that family members can offer emotional
support to each other and perhaps seek professional consultation,
they will be better prepared to help their loved one manage
the illness and to recognize the limits of what they themselves
can reasonably do.
Though Alzheimer's disease cannot at present be cured, reversed,
or stopped in its progression, much can be done to help both
the patient and the family live through the course of the
illness with greater dignity and less discomfort. Toward this
goal, appropriate clinical interventions and community services
should be vigorously sought. While Alzheimer's disease remains
a mystery, with its cause and cure not yet found, there is
considerable excitement and hope about new findings that are
unfolding in numerous research settings. The connecting pieces
to the puzzle called Alzheimer's disease continue to be found.