The Challenges of Alzheimer's Disease (text version)

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What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurologic disorder that kills nerve cells in the brain and causes dementia.

It’s ultimately fatal and is not a normal part of aging. It gradually erodes its victims’ brains, and impairs memory, judgment, communication, and independence.

By killing nerve cells, Alzheimer’s disease causes an overall shrinkage of brain tissue.

A Growing Epidemic

Alzheimer's Disease in the United States:

  • More than 5 million now
  • 7 million by 2030
  • Nearly 14 Million By 2050

Dementia Prevalence Worldwide:

  • 50 million now
  • 75 million by 2030
  • 152 million by 2050

The Economic Impact

Total payments for health care, long-term care, and hospice care for people in the United States with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are increasing dramatically.

  • $259 billion per year in 2017
  • $1.1 trillion per year in 2050
  • The costs of caring for those with Alzheimer’s in the United States will total $290 billion in 2019.
  • NIH funding for Alzheimer’s research will total $910 million in 2017.

Alzheimer’s Disease Risk factors

Known Risk Factors

  • Age - The single greatest risk of developing Alzheimer's disease is age.
  • Genetics -The majority of Alzheimer’s cases are late-onset, usually developing after age 60. This form of the disease shows no obvious inheritance pattern. Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease appears to be a “multifactorial disease” meaning that a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors may influence a person’s risk of developing it.
  • Familial Alzheimer's Disease (FAD) - A form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, known as familial Alzheimer's disease (FAD) is inherited and rare. It develops before age 60 and is caused by any one of three gene mutations on chromosomes 1, 14 and 21.

Potential Contributing Factors

  • Cardiovascular Disease - Risk factors associated with heart disease and stroke may also increase one's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
  • Type 2 Diabetes - There is growing evidence of a link between Alzheimer's disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Oxidative Damage - Unstable molecules resulting from chemical reactions, which may harm brain cells.
  • Inflammation - As protein plaques develop, inflammation results, leading to cell damage.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury - Mounting evidence shows a link between Alzheimer’s disease and serious head trauma.
  • Gender - Due to a variety of factors including sex-based biological differences, two-thirds of Alzheimer’s disease occurs in women.

Symptoms & Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease progresses gradually, lasting for an average of seven years.

  • Preclinical/Pre-symptomatic Stage
    Physical changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease begin decades before symptoms become evident.
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
    People with MCI have marked forgetfulness, and experience difficulty remembering names and following conversations.
  • Mild (Stage 1)
    In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s common to lose energy and spontaneity. Minor memory loss, mood swings, and delays in learning and reaction times occur. It’s still possible to perform basic tasks independently, but assistance may be required while doing complicated activities.
  • Moderate (Stage 2)
    Advancing Alzheimer’s disease affects the ability to comprehend location, the day, and the time. Though the distant past may be recalled, recent events become difficult to remember. Pastimes like listening to music, or looking at photographs from the past may bring comfort.
  • Severe (Stage 3)
    Memory loss worsens. Loss of muscle control and vulnerability to illness will occur. Some individuals need reassuring physical contact, and may be comforted by holding hands, being read to, or being near a much-loved pet. Caregivers can help the person feel safe and relaxed with the tone of their voice.

Seeking Diagnosis

Many conditions can cause memory problems. A physician with knowledge and experience in dementia and memory loss can perform an evaluation to determine whether someone has Alzheimer's disease.

  • A physical examination will be performed to help identify and rule out other potential causes.
  • Physicians may use brain scans (such as MRI) to rule out other possible causes.
  • Neuropsychological tests identify behavioral and mental symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease.

Treating Alzheimer’s Disease

  • There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease; however, there are medications that can help control symptoms.
  • Consult a physician before taking any medications.
  • Researchers are seeking new treatments to change the course of the disease and improve life for people with dementia.

The Facts About Caregiving

  • More than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for someone with Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
  • Caregivers provide roughly 18 billion hours of unpaid care, a contribution valued at more than $234 billion.
  • An impact on caregivers: Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease can have a negative impact on health, employment, income, and financial security.

Caregivers Need Support

In most cases, the primary caregiver of a person with Alzheimer’s disease will be a loved one or close companion. Even in the early stages of the disease, caregiving can be a demanding, 24-hour-a-day task.

Help is available:

  • Caregiving support groups
  • Family members and friends
  • Information
  • Hired or volunteer ("respite") caregivers in your home
  • Adult day programs
  • Long-term care in a residential facility (e.g., assisted living)

What can you do?

  • Support scientific research by making a financial contribution, participating in a clinical trial, or joining a registry.
  • Speak out about Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Schedule a doctor's appointment if you or a loved one are experiencing possible symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

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