The Alzheimer’s Association estimates as many as 5.2 million Americans 65 or older have the disease in 2014. Roughly 200,000 are younger than 65. Half a million Americans die from the disease each year.
Alzheimer’s is marked by four stages: pre-dementia, early, moderate, and advanced. Each stage produces symptoms that affect quality of life with escalating effect. This mental decline encompasses eight areas of cognition: attention, constructive abilities, functional abilities, language, orientation, perceptual skills, problem solving, and memory.
Neuropsychological testing is often the first step in diagnosing AD. When cognitive, observational, and psychological tests indicate AD, brain imaging can confirm the diagnosis. Alzheimer’s is a proteopathy (protein misfolding disease). The misfolding proteins occur in the brain, where they form dense plaques that destroy healthy brain tissue. These plaques, visible on MRI and PET scans, grow in number and size as the disease progresses.
There is no known cause of most AD cases but approximately 0.1% of them are genetic. This form of AD, known as early onset familial AD, usually produces symptoms before age 65. Various theories exist for the remainder of AD cases but no theory has yet proven reliable.
One theory, the amyloid hypothesis, implicates protein deposits outside the cells of chromosome 21 as potential origins of the disease. People with trisomy 21, the most common form of Down Syndrome, have an extra copy of chromosome 21 and they almost always develop AD symptoms by age 40.
There is no effective treatment for AD at this time. Some medications as well as mental and physical therapies are thought to slow progression in some cases but the results of these studies are widely considered more anecdotal than documentable.
Palliative care, which strives to create a safe comfortable environment for the AD patient, is the most effective approach to AD treatment today. In the early stages of the disease, family members often serve as primary caregivers but later stages of illness almost always require professional medical care in a specialized institution.
Women are more likely to get AD than men and are more likely to be a patient’s primary caregiver:
- Two-thirds of all AD patients are women.
- 1 in 6 women is expected to develop AD in her lifetime; 1 in 11 will develop breast cancer.
- Women are 2.5 times more likely to provide round-the-clock care to a family member.
- 60% of all AD caregivers are women.
- Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist, first documented the disease in a female patient in 1906.
Diagnosis of AD is expected to triple by 2050, as the Baby Boom generation reaches advanced age. Alzheimer’s, the nation’s #6 leading cause of death, is the most expensive medical condition to treat in the US today.