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Alzheimer's Disease

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Alzheimer's Disease

AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease is a slow, progressive, and degenerative disease of the brain. This disease is marked by a gradual loss of memory and other cognitive functions. "Alzheimer's Disease is also known as the most common cause of dementia--a general term referring to the loss of memory and the ability to think, reason, function, and behave properly" (Medina,1999). It primarily affects adults in their 60's or older and eventually destroys a person's ability to perform simple, routine tasks or even to care for themselves. Statistics show that "as many as 10 percent of all people 65 years of age and older have Alzheimer's," and that approximately "50 percent of all people 85 or older also have the disease" (WebMD, n.d.).

Originally it was thought to be a rare condition affecting only young people, and was referred to as pre-senile dementia. Today late-onset AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease is recognized as the most common cause of the loss of mental function in those aged 65 and over. "AlzheimerÐŽ¦s in people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, called early-onset AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease, occurs much less frequently, accounting for less than 10 percent of the estimated 4 million AlzheimerÐŽ¦s cases in the United States" (Encarta, 2004). Alzheimer's disease advances in stages, progressing from mild absentmindedness and cognitive impairment to widespread loss of mental abilities. In advanced Alzheimer's, people become dependent on others for every aspect of their care. The most common cause of death among Alzheimer's patients is infection. Even though scientists are still learning about AlzheimerÐŽ¦s, there is no cure.

Alzheimer's disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor. "In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found abnormal clumps (now called amyliod plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles) within the brain"(ADEAR, 2004). Scientists have found that tangles and plaques cause the neurons in the brains of AlzheimerÐŽ¦s patients to shrink and eventually die. They start in the memory and language centers and finally invade throughout the brain. "This widespread neuron degeneration leaves gaps in the brainÐŽ¦s messaging network that may interfere with communication between cells, causing some of the symptoms of AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease" (Cutler & Sramek, 1996). Today, these certain plaques and tangles found in the brain are considered to be the tell tale signs of Alzheimer's disease.

The cause of AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease still remains a mystery today. Researchers are learning about what happens to the brain as we grow old, what happens to brain cells in Alzheimer's Disease, which genes are associated, and many other factors that may be significant. Some of the most promising AlzheimerÐŽ¦s research is being conducted in the field of genetics to learn the role a family history of the disease has in its development. Scientists have learned that "people who are carriers of a specific version of the apolipoprotein E gene (apoE gene), found on chromosome 19, are several times more likely to develop AlzheimerÐŽ¦s than carriers of other versions of the apoE gene. Nearly half of all late-onset AlzheimerÐŽ¦s patients have the less common apoE4 version and research has shown that this gene plays a role in AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease"(Cutler & Sramek, 1996). Scientists have also found evidence that "variations in one or more genes located on chromosomes 1, 10, and 14 may increase a personÐŽ¦s risk for AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease"(Cutler & Sramek, 1996).

Researchers have made similar strides in the investigation of early-onset AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease. "A series of genetic mutations in patients with early-onset AlzheimerÐŽ¦s has been linked to the production of amyloid precursor protein, the protein in plaques that may be implicated in the destruction of neurons. One mutation is particularly interesting to geneticists because it occurs on a gene involved in the genetic disorder Down syndrome"(Cutler & Sramek, 1996). People with Down syndrome usually develop these plaques and tangles in their brains as they get older. Researchers believe that learning more about the similarities between Down syndrome and AlzheimerÐŽ¦s may help us to further understand the genetic elements of this disease.

As we all know, some change in memory loss as we grow older is quite normal; however, in Alzheimer's disease the simple lapse in memory is far greater. The Alzheimer's Association (n.d.) believes "that it is critical for people with dementia and their families to receive information, care and support as early as possible". Here are the most common warning signs of Alzheimer's disease: (1) Memory Loss, (2) Difficulty performing familiar task, (3) Problems with language, (4) Disorientation with regards to time and place, (5) Poor or decreased judgment, (6) Problems with abstract thinking, (7) Misplacing things, (8) Changes in mood or behavior, (9) Changes in personality and (10)Loss of initiative(Willett, 2002). A person may not experience all of these symptoms nor are they in any order. Nevertheless, the first warning sign of Alzheimer's disease is often forgetfulness. We all experience a short memory lapse known as forgetfulness, but to be considered a warning sign, the lapse needs to last at least 6 months.

According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research (2004), "there are three distinct stages typically referred to as: mild, moderate, and severe". The symptoms commonly seen in each stage are listed below, but it's important to know that there may be some overlap among the stages, and that people may not experience all of these symptoms.

Symptoms by Stage of Disease

Mild Symptoms

Ñ"ÐŽ Confusion and memory loss

Ñ"Ñž Disorientation; getting lost in familiar surroundings

3 Problems with routine tasks

4 Changes in personality and judgment

5 Onset of the disease occurs at this stage and it may be four or more years until a diagnosis of AlzheimerÐŽ¦s disease is established

Moderate Symptoms

6 Difficulty with activities of daily living, such as eating and bathing

7 Anxiety, suspiciousness, agitation

8

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