By Cathy Massaro, CCM, MSW

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease and the most common form of dementia. It accounts for between 60% up to 80% of dementia cases. Having said that, dementia is not a specific disease. Dementia is an overall term that describes a group of symptoms. A group of symptoms that includes 5.7 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease. This number is expected to increase to 14 million by 2050. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. That is more than breast and prostate cancer combined.

Alzheimer’s disease causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. These symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time. Often the symptoms become so severe that they interfere with an individual’s daily tasks. The brain has 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) that connect with many others to form communication patterns. These groups of connected neurons have special jobs such as thinking, learning, remembering and all the senses. They act like tiny factories receiving supplies, generating energy, constructing equipment and getting rid of waste. The neurons process and store information and communication with other cells. This system requires coordination, fuel and oxygen. Alzheimer’s disease prevents parts of the cell factories from running well. When these backups or breakdowns occur in one system it causes problems in others. The damage spreads to other cells and eventually they lose their ability to perform their jobs. These brain cell changes are irreversible.

Another way of understanding this disease is that the neurons turn into plaques and tangles. The plaques are called beta-amyloids. They are considered deposits of protein fragments that build up in the spaces between the nerve cells. The tangles are twisted fibers of another protein (tau) that build up inside the cells. Both interfere in the ability of the brain cells to function at their highest potential.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. There are some medication options available to slow the progression of the disease, treat it, and or delay the onset. Research continues through clinical trials and studies. The research is focusing on early diagnosis with bio markers, brain imaging, neuroimaging, cerebrospinal fluid proteins along with blood and urine tests. Genetic profiling is also being explored.

Life style changes are also being touted as a means to prevent this disease. Regular activity, good heart health, social connections, intellectual challenges along with being cautious with respect to head injuries can go a long way towards personal responsibility in the fight against this disease. The use of seat belts, helmets and fall proofing a home can help prevent head traumas.

All this science is exactly that, science. Alzheimer’s disease is the slow loss of someone. It doesn’t strike quick like a heart attack or unfortunate vehicle accident. Alzheimer’s disease chips away at a person’s very being. Little by little. Piece by piece. Then, one day, the individual is lucid again; giving a strange sense of hope that their condition has slowed or improved. This euphoria is quickly destroyed the next day when the individual is back to their disease base line. The painful reality of this disease is that it is not linear. There is no line graph that will show the progression of the disease without showing back steps, plateaus and status quo. These “holding patterns” give way to false hope that is always crushed sooner than later.

I know this first hand because I am watching my beloved father disappear. I am one of the lucky ones because even though he is on Hospice services he still knows and loves me. He many not know the day, what is going on or what he should be doing at any given time but he still smiles when I walk in the room. He reaches to hold my hand as he pulls me closer to sit on the side of his bed. He rambles on about nothing with repetition that he no longer recognizes he is doing. It has all become music to my ears because for this moment in time, he still knows and loves me.

Reference: Alzheimer’s Association

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