Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a brain disorder named for German physician Alois Alzheimer, who first described it in 1906. Scientists have learned a great deal about Alzheimer’s disease in the century since Dr. Alzheimer first drew attention to it.

In spite the long history of the disease in the modern world, there is not much we know about its development mechanism, and even less on the possibilities of the successful medical treatments.
Today we know that Alzheimer’s:
  • It is a form of dementia. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that results in dementia. The terms Alzheimer's and dementia are often used interchangeably, but there's a distinct difference between them. Dementia is a broader term than Alzheimer's and refers to any brain syndrome resulting in problems with memory, orientation, judgment, executive functioning, and communication. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia -- according to the Alzheimer's Association, 60% to 70% of dementia cases are due to Alzheimer's. However, many other diseases can cause dementia, such as stroke, Parkinson's disease, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Some infectious diseases can also result in dementia, such as HIV or the extremely rare Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
  • It is a progressive and fatal brain disease. As many as 5.3 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer's destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies or social life. Alzheimer’s gets worse over time, and it is fatal. Today it is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States
  • The chances to get affected get worse with people aging. The likelihood of having Alzheimer's disease increases substantially after the age of 70 and may affect around 50% of persons over the age of 85. Nonetheless, Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging and is not something that inevitably happens in later life. For example, many people live to over 100 years of age and never develop Alzheimer's disease.
  • Is the most common form of dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 50 to 70 percent of dementia cases. Other types of dementia include vascular dementia, mixed dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia.
  • Has no current cure. But treatments for symptoms, combined with the right services and support, can make life better for the millions of Americans living with Alzheimer’s. There is an accelerating worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, or prevent it from developing.
  • Brain is affected. There are three major hallmarks in the brain that are associated with the disease processes of AD.
    • Amyloid plaques, which are made up of fragments of a protein called beta-amyloid peptide mixed with a collection of additional proteins, remnants of neurons, and bits and pieces of other nerve cells.
    • Neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs), found inside neurons, are abnormal collections of a protein called tau. Normal tau is required for healthy neurons. However, in AD, tau clumps together. As a result, neurons fail to function normally and eventually die.
    • Loss of connections between neurons responsible for memory and learning. Neurons can't survive when they lose their connections to other neurons. As neurons die throughout the brain, the affected regions begin to atrophy, or shrink. By the final stage of AD, damage is widespread and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

Sources and Additional Information:
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