Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is often thought of as a disease that only causes memory loss, as well as being a natural part of the human aging process: Both characterizations are wrong. These misunderstandings present challenges to those who are and will become afflicted with this truly dreadful disease.
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Researchers believe that Alzheimer’s disease begins to develop in the brain up to 20 years before the first symptoms occur.

Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are lapses with memory. At first, this can be infrequent and inconsistent, but this changes over time. As the disease progresses, new symptoms will present themselves, such as uncontrollable anxiety, fear, confusion, and anger. Mood swings occur for no apparent reason. Judgement becomes impaired. Familiar—even simple—tasks, such as boiling water become difficult. And misplacing possessions begins to become a regular occurrence.

These could be viewed as inconveniences, as mild cognitive impairments. But the disease is far more debilitating than what it seems in these beginning stages. As the disease progresses, mobility becomes limited. Eating becomes something often forgotten. Speaking becomes difficult, or impossible. Increasing neurological damage can result in heart attack, stroke, and other common causes of death. Researchers now believe that Alzheimer’s disease begins to develop in the brain up to 20 years before the first symptoms occur, and that deterioration can continue for 10 to 20 years after diagnosis. It is a slow, painful, costly disease … and it is always fatal.

Alzheimer’s disease was first discovered over a century ago, by Dr. Alois Alzheimer. He wrote about a female patient who experienced loss of memory, paranoia, and other psychological changes. He performed an autopsy after her death, during which he documented unusual clumps in her brain, as well as significant shrinkage of brain tissue in and around the nerves.

For many decades, research and discovery about Alzheimer’s disease went neglected. Then, in 1974, the National Institute on Aging was established to develop a coordinated plan with Health, Education and Welfare to research Alzheimer’s disease research.

Meaningful progress finally began in the mid-1980’s. In 1986—a full 80 years after the work of Dr. Alois Alzheimer—a team of researchers that included Dr. Rudy Tanzi discovered the first Alzheimer’s gene, confirming the theory that Alzheimer’s disease has a basis in genetics. Continued investigations during the last two decades increased our understanding of the extremely complex human brain, and have led to the conclusion that Alzheimer’s disease is likely the result of multiple contributing factors.

At this time, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Medications can only help to lessen symptoms of the disease, providing partial, temporary relief—but they have no effect on cognitive decline and physical deterioration.