Alzheimer’s disease is arguably the most difficult disease a human being and his or her loved ones can go through. It is difficult to describe exactly what it is, because nobody knows… and nobody ever will know the details of this sometimes outright cruel disease. Alzheimer’s disease attacks the brain physiologically and literally wipes its victim’s memory, therefore details are absent. This occurs over several stages, over varying lengths – depending on the individual, typically from a few months through several years and then into decades should the person otherwise be healthy. Alzheimer’s may begin very slowly, starting out innocently with inconsequential things like forgetting where the car keys are… something that has happened to you more times than you care to remember, even as a teenager!
Seven years pass and your general practitioner and wife are very concerned because you are having a very hard time counting the change in your pocket. Cut to: fifteen years later; and you are backed up into the corner of some room, squatting, there are three strangers approaching (one has a needle, you can tell), they keep saying it is okay Mr. Canigliaro, eventually they grab you, take some blood, and leave. This happens enough times during the day and night that you seem to remember that it keeps happening… so it must be fairly frequent? You simply cannot be sure.
There are research hospitals, institutions, colleges, and other facilities searching for a way to cure Alzheimer’s disease… or at least minimize its impact on victims and their loved ones. At the top of the list: The Mayo Clinic located in Rochester, Minnesota, and named the top hospital in the nation for the year 2014 – 2015.
Alzheimer’s Disease Research:
The Mayo Clinic has a separate research facilities (located in both Minnesota and Florida) dedicated to the research and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other forms of dementia. Be careful to understand the terminology when discussing this disease and others in this category. Dementia, for example, is not a specific disease… it is a broad term that describes an inclusive range of symptoms describing a loss of memory and/or thinking skills that reduce a person’s ability to care for themselves or perform regular daily activities. Of all dementia cases, Alzheimer’s cases make up approximately 60% to 80%.
Why does the Brain Deteriorate as Alzheimer’s disease First Sets In?
Dementia of any kind involves the brain (this always varies by individual – that is in which of the several areas of the brain) and damage to the nerve cells of the brain. There are two types of dementia: progressive dementia – which starts out slowly but always gets worse over time, and cannot be treated; and dementia – which can be treated and some of which may be reversed.
Alzheimer’s disease is very much an individual illness, affecting people in vastly different ways; therefore, it has been very difficult to determine an exact cause in most cases. Extensive research has been done over decades because Alzheimer’s has always been considered such a callous, heartless disease for everyone associated with it – the patient, loved ones, and health care providers.
Researchers have found that people with Alzheimer’s disease do have plaques and tangles in their brains. Plaques are defined as “clumps of protein called beta-amyloid”, and tangles are “fibrous tangles made up of tau protein.”
Alzheimer’s disease is still very mysterious despite the progress research has allowed. What causes the initial preclinical stage to begin in the brain is unknown, but scientists believe that damage to the brain begins at least ten years before any Alzheimer’s symptoms begin to appear . This means that horrific physical changes are taking place inside one’s brain for perhaps a decade or more, unbeknownst to the person who has become a walking dementia time-bomb. Neurons are slowly losing their ability to function normally because abnormal deposits of proteins are forming tau tangles (also known as neurofibrillary tangles ) and amyloid plaques all through the brain. These tangles (formerly called tangled bundles of fibers ) and plaques interfere with and otherwise cause to malfunction the nerve cells – once they form… they stay in place and interfere with whatever area of the brain they occupy. Once those neurons lose their ability to communicate with each other, they cannot function and they will simply die.
When this process occurs in the part of the brain called the hippocampus, an area essential to forming memories, the neurons surrounding it similarly die and the hippocampus begins to shrink. Researchers now know that by the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease, brain tissue injured by tau tangles and amyloid plaques shrank considerably.
Alzheimer’s is a complex disease of the brain because it involves the brain, specifically memory. Understanding something this complex takes time and because scientists have put in a lot of time, researching this type of dementia, we are fortunate to know as much as we do. The complexity of it all means that the underlying cause likely involves a mixture of genetic, environmental, and even lifestyle factors – each of which is more or less important depending on each individual person.
The latest research on lifestyle choices and the impact, if any, on Alzheimer’s disease is promising, however. There is a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (and cognitive decline as well) when people focus on taking care of themselves physically and mentally – through activities such as eating well, exercising, social activities, and playing chess. The Mayo Clinic advises that maintaining healthy lifestyle choices promote good overall health, and this must contribute to better cognitive functioning. This choice (healthy lifestyle) is the only way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, to date.
Keywords: Early Alzheimer’s disease, individual diagnosis, mild cognitive impairment, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), cognitive reserve