“World Alzheimer’s Disease”
On World Alzheimer’s Day, health organizations across the globe focus their efforts on raising awareness about this disease.
The first diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease was in 1906. Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disorder. It slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Eventually, when someone has Alzheimer’s, they lose the ability to carry out simple tasks. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. At this time, science hasn’t found a cure, nor is there a way to prevent the disease.
An estimated 44 million people in the world have Alzheimer’s disease. Of all the places in the world, Alzheimer’s disease is most common in Western Europe. North America is close behind. In the United States, 5.5 million people have the disease. Every 66 seconds, someone in the U.S. receives an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease of the brain. It slowly degrades brain cells (neurons) – the disease often goes unnoticed until significant damage has occurred. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, a group of more than 80 Alzheimer’s associations in the world, it takes about 20 years before an Alzheimer’s patient starts to show symptoms. Most people just live with this disease, unaware.
While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown, certain factors put a person at a higher risk for developing this condition. Some of the factors are:
- Age: Older people are more susceptible to this disease. The risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after the age of 65.
- Gender: If you are a woman, you are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as a man. Hormonal changes during menopause and the fact that women usually live longer contribute to this.
- Family history: Contrary to popular belief, most cases of Alzheimer’s are not inherited. In those rare few cases where a heredity pattern is seen, the disease starts well before the age of 65.
- Lifestyle and health: People who live an unhealthy lifestyle are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Experts say that even if someone in your family has Alzheimer’s, you can reduce your risk by following a healthy lifestyle.
- Certain diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and depression are associated with an increased chance of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Usually, the first sign of Alzheimer’s is memory loss. The person starts to forget things they have been told recently – important dates as well as everyday things. Along with this, a gradual decline in learning capability and reasoning and judgement are noticed in the early stages. Eventually, the symptoms progress to confusion and difficulty in performing everyday tasks. The person starts misplacing things and losing their sense of time and space. Withdrawal from social activity, depression and anxiety are some other symptoms.
However, not every kind of dementia is Alzheimer’s. As people get older, they start to forget things. But more often than not, they are aware of the fact that they have forgotten something and they eventually remember it. Alzheimer’s patients, however, usually aren’t even aware of their dementia.
Pathophysiology: what happens in the brain
The human brain is a complex network of cells that work together to control the overall functioning of the body. Even a small change in a tiny part of the brain can potentially disrupt the whole process. Alzheimer’s patients have been found to have two such problems in their brain – beta-amyloid protein and tau fibres. While beta-amyloid collect between nerve cells and form plaques, tau fibres collect inside brain cells.
Together, they disrupt the communication between brain cells, leading to malfunctioning of the brain. It is important to note that even healthy people develop some amount of both these compounds. But people with Alzheimer’s tend to develop them in a much higher quantity – starting from the memory section these compounds then spread to the other parts of the brain.
Diagnosis and treatment
Alzheimer’s is most commonly identified through patient and family history, and by talking to the immediate family about the presence of symptoms. Also, brain imagining may be suggested to check for beta-amyloid protein deposits.
As of today, there is no curative treatment for Alzheimer’s. Drugs are usually administered to manage symptoms and healthy lifestyle changes. Despite this, Alzheimer’s is one of the most expensive diseases to get treatment for.
The global cost of dementia is estimated to be around $1 trillion currently. This includes medical expenses, expenses of caregivers and reduced economic productivity of the family. Dementia patients and their caregivers also pay indirect costs in the form of reduced quality of life and the feeling of loss of a family member while they are still there.
World Alzheimer’s Month is a global opportunity to raise awareness around, educate, encourage support of and demystify dementia.
Let’s shine a spotlight on Alzheimer’s and highlight how taking the time to talk about it can have a huge impact for people affected by the disease.
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