Medical professionals warn that Alzheimer’s disease is slowly and surely becoming one of the most troubling public health problems our society faces. According to the recent study, by 2050 13.8 million people Americans will be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In 2010, there were only 4.7 million. What is going on and is there a way to do something about it?
Explosion of Alzheimer’s
The reason for this explosion of Alzheimer’s disease is the fact that the baby boom generation is ageing and reaching the age of 65, which puts them in the high risk category for developing this crippling syndrome. According to the Baby boomers’ Headquarters, every year 4,000,000 baby boomers are reaching their 60th birthday. Baby boomers are people born after the World War II, when American soldiers came back from the war and started making babies. The sociologists call baby boomers all people born between 1946 and 1964. The huge number of post-war babies is posing a severe burden on society as they grow old, stop being productive and start getting normal disease linked to the old age. Alzheimer’s disease is just one of them, but its nature makes it a very expensive burden, dangerously straining social and medical system.
The study that predicts explosion of Alzheimer’s was conducted by a group of researchers from the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago. Their findings are published in the recent issue of the journal Neurology.
Not only Americans
The World Health Organization (WHO) published in 2012 a report named “Dementia: a public health priority”. According to the report, the number of 35.6 million people with Alzheimer’s worldwide will increase by 2050 to about 115 million. The purpose of this report, which has been published jointly by WHO and Alzheimer’s Disease International, is to raise public awareness of dementia as a current health priority. According to the WHO, by 2030, more than 65 million people worldwide will have dementia. More than half of them will be from developing nations.
World nations are currently spending more than $600 billion on the treatment and care of people with dementia.
The researchers collected and analyzed data from 10,802 people. They targeted Caucasians and African-Americans, 65 and older, who lived in Chicago in the period between 1993 and 2011. They were interviewed and tested for dementia every three years. Scientists combined collected information with death rates in the US, current and future population growth estimates from the US Census Bureau and participants’ education level.
Scientists were not surprised with the results of the study, as they were similar to the results of earlier studies. They concluded that our society should anticipate a dramatic jump in the number of cases of Alzheimer’s and should prepare for it. While scientists suggest that preventive measures should be developed, they did not specify which measures. So far, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. But, there is a number of different directions the research is taking and there are some suggestions that we could play a part in keeping ourselves safe from old-age dementia, by changing our lifestyle.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
The reason for the alarm at the increase in the number of people with Alzheimer”s is in the nature of the disease. It is a devastating brain disease that slowly but inevitably wipes out a person’s memory, cognitive abilities and even the ability to take care of himself or herself. It is the most common type of dementia. It affects not only people suffering from it, but their caregivers as well, once they reach the stage that they are incapable of taking care of their basic functions.
The most important risk factors for the Alzheimer’s are age and genetics. There is not much we can do about that, at least for the time being. But, environment and lifestyle play role as well, and the importance of these factors is the key many researchers are using as the direction of their studies in searching for the way to slow down or even prevent the symptoms of the disease.
What happens to the brain?
A healthy adult brain has about 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Neurons form branches that have more than 100 trillion connection points or synapses. Neurons and their connections are doing the real work of the brain. Signals, in the form of tiny electrical charges, travel between the neurons and form our thoughts, memories and feelings. Neurons are the main kind of cell destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists are still not sure what causes the death of brain cell and tissue in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. But, most believe that the prime suspects are plaques and tangles. Plaques are abnormal clusters of fragments of protein beta-amyloid that accumulate between neurons. Tangles are twisted strands of another protein. The tissue of an Alzheimer’s brain has many fewer neurons and synapses than a healthy brain.
How fast the disease progresses varies greatly from person to person. Some people start having changes to their brains 20 years before they are diagnosed with the disease. Others, with the advanced disease, live only few years. The speed of the development of the disease depends mostly on age when it is diagnose, but also on other health issues a person has.
Not all old people get Alzheimer’s
It is very important to know that the Alzheimer”s is not a normal part of ageing. It is a disease. As we age, we get some signs that worry us, such as forgetfulness. There are many tests now that can determine if what we experience is normal, or a first sign of early Alzheimer’s. People who have family history of the disease should consult their doctor about the available testing.
People can go through the earliest stages of the disease without having any symptoms. Nevertheless, plaques and tangles start forming in their brain first affecting memory and the ability to learn new things, as well as planning and thinking skills. As the disease progresses, people have problems speaking and understanding and get easily confused. This is the stage when the disease is normally diagnosed. The deterioration continues with behavior and personality changes. Nor being able to recognize the closest family members and friends affects both patients and their caregivers.
Preventing Alzheimer’s: there is hope
At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. But, huge number of research efforts in many directions offers hope that we will soon be able to postpone, slow down or prevent this devastating disease.
Particularly interesting are studies on how healthy lifestyle affects the disease, by lowering the risk for its development, or slowing down the progression once it is there. There is no consensus, and the results of different studies differ, about the power of physical and mental exercise. Healthy diet and various supplements are also investigated, with mixed results. An interesting recent study found that purified extracts of EGCG from green tea and resveratrol from red wine were able to interrupt the process which permitted plaque – harmful clumps of protein – to get attached to brain cells, causing them to die. Another study confirmed the existing theory that nutrition rich in vitamin D3 and omega 3 fatty acids may help body’s immune system to clear the brain of amyloid plaques, one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s disease.
What can we do?
Getting reliable information about the Alzheimer’s disease is a good start in doing our part. An excellent publication by the National Institute for Ageing has answer to most of question you might have.
For people who have family history of Alzheimer’s disease, it is crucial to find out if they have genetic markers which predispose them for the disease. There are also numerous reliable tests which can diagnose the disease long before it shows its ugly head.
For the rest of us, we do not need scientists to tell us that healthy body means usually healthy mind. Balanced nutrition, rich in vegetables, fish, grains, nuts and low in fat might not be completely accepted as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s, but will surely prevent high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and many other health issues. Physical and mental exercises are also part of healthy lifestyle. We all have an odd grandma or grandpa who is running, skiing, swimming, playing tennis, dancing, taking university courses and solving the toughest crossword puzzles in their advanced age. What is more important, they seem to genuinely enjoy life. And in the process, their lifestyle is probably keeping those brain synapses firing and keeping them clear of plaque, whether scientists can prove it or not.