Health Smarts - Alzheimer’s Awareness
This month marks the sixth annual World Alzheimer’s Month, a campaign to raise awareness and challenge stigma about a devastating disease that greatly impacts not just those who have it but their family and friends as well.
This month marks the sixth annual World Alzheimer’s Month, a campaign to raise awareness and challenge stigma about a devastating disease that greatly impacts not just those who have it but their family and friends as well. The month, which includes World Alzheimer’s Day on Sept. 21, is a time for action. But it’s also a time to reflect on the impact of dementia, a disease that’ll affect more and more people as the years pass. Led by Alzheimer’s Disease International, the campaign unites opinion leaders, patients, caregivers, families, clinicians, researchers and media from around the world. The hope is that awareness may be spread by information-sharing and educating others about the disease.For many people, there’s little or no understanding of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. There’s often confusion between Alzheimer’s and dementia, but there is a difference. The term dementia refers to a set of symptoms, not the disease itself. There are other forms of dementia, including frontotemporal disorders and vascular dementia. There’s mild memory loss in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In later stages, patients lose the ability to hold conversations and respond to their environment.
Early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s include:
- Memory loss
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Problems performing usual daily tasks
- Changes in mood and personality
- Misplacing items and losing ability to retrace steps
The sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, life expectancy is an average of eight years after symptoms arise. However, survival may range four to 20 years, depending on the age of onset and other health conditions.
These symptoms happen because Alzheimer’s disease advances nerve cell death and tissue loss throughout the brain. Plaque, the abnormal cluster of protein fragments (beta-amyloid), builds up between nerve cells. These dead and dying cells contain tangles, which are twisted strands of another protein. Tangles destroy the cell transport system that moves nutrients through cells. Plaques and tangles spread to areas of the brain that involve speaking and understanding speech and the sense of where your body is in relation to objects around you. Over time, the brain shrinks severely, disturbing most functions. The areas of the brain that are affected include the cortex, which shrivels up and damages the thinking, planning and remembering processes. Individuals lose the ability to communicate, recognize familiar people and care for themselves. The hippocampus, part of the cortex, is responsible in the creation of new memories. Ventricles, the fluid-filled spaces within the brain, become enlarged.
Experts believe multiple factors contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, including older age, having a family history of the disease and carrying the APOE-e4 gene. Aging is the greatest known risk factor, as Alzheimer’s affects 11% of those age 65 or older and about 32% of those 85 or older. APOE-e4 is a risk gene which increases the probability of developing a disease, but it doesn’t guarantee it. A copy of APOE is inherited by everyone from each parent. There are also deterministic genes, which directly cause disease if inherited. Scientists found these rare genes affecting less than 5% of Alzheimer’s cases.
Research has also shown a link between moderate to severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a greater risk of developing a form of dementia years after injury. This is dependent upon severity of the injury, age and length of follow-up after treatment. Currently, TBI and Alzheimer’s don’t have cures. These diseases require early identification in the form of imaging or biomarkers to provide therapeutic intervention in the earliest stages. There are drug and non-drug treatments that may aid cognitive and behavioral symptoms. They may help relieve these symptoms and maintain a level of independence for a longer amount of time. Researchers continue to search for new treatments to alter the course of the disease and improve quality of life.
For more information, visit nia.nih.gov/alzheimers.
Patrice Walker is the program manager of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) Medical Services Department at the PVA national office in Washington, D.C.
Health Smarts - Alzheimer’s Awareness
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