The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that there are currently 5.2 million people in the United States living with Alzheimer’s disease. And nearly all experts agree that number will skyrocket to as many as 16 million by the year 2050, barring any new developments in diagnosing and treating this disease.
As our nation rapidly grays, Alzheimer’s has become a great fear for many Americans.
The dementia resulting from this chronic, progressive condition profoundly decreases the quality of senior life as individuals slowly lose their ability to remember and interact with the world. However, scientists hope that new medical tests can greatly improve life for patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease— and for the people who take care of them.
How Alzheimer’s Disease Decreases Quality of Senior Life
At this time, Alzheimer’s disease is the six leading cause of death among seniors in the US, claiming half a million American lives each year—a number that shows a dramatic 68 percent increase between the years 2000 and 2010.
In the early days of medicine, doctors diagnosed patients with Alzheimer’s disease based on their symptoms. This is not an especially speedy or accurate process, as symptoms can take 10 to 20 years or more to develop enough for detection. Furthermore, some of these changes can happen so slowly that many may perceive them to be part of a person’s personality.
Although doctors do not yet know the root causes of Alzheimer’s disease, they do know the disease is associated with certain abnormalities in the brain. A specific type of plaque, known as amyloid plaques, is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid plaques can build up in the nervous system to interfere with the way cells communicate.
Another hallmark of the disease is a problem with the twisted, insoluble fibers inside nerve cells known as neurofibrillary tangles. These fibers contain a protein, called tau, which forms a structure that transports nutrients from one part of the brain cell to another.
In a person with Alzheimer’s disease, the tau protein is missing in the neurofibrillary tangles, causing that structure to collapse. As a result, nerve cells in the brain do not get the nutrients they need to function well.
A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can have devastating consequences for senior life— including poor health, fading connections with family and loss of reason—but none of these facts or statistic stake into account the effect that Alzheimer’s has on families. This devastating disease can wreak havoc as individuals, and the people who care for and about them, face loss of memory, confusion, inability to care for oneself and, eventually, death.
Worrying that you or a loved one will develop Alzheimer’s disease (or is already living, undiagnosed, with the disease) can have an impact on your quality of life. Luckily, medical scientists are working to develop new tests that can help detect, and treat, Alzheimer’s in the disease’s earliest stages.
New Medical Tests May Be Able to Take Some of the Worry off Your Mind
It is becoming increasingly possible for doctors to detect amyloid plaques and the loss of tau in neurofibrillary tangles through brain scans, spinal fluid testing, blood work and other biomarkers. Furthermore, these biomarkers can identify brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease years before behavioral changes become evident.
While there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or treatments to slow its progression, early detection can help patients plan for and reduce some of the complications of the condition.
Unfortunately, the process to obtain the biomarkers is still costly and uncomfortable, but scientists are working to develop new ways to address these issues to make identifying those at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease easier and more effective.
Researchers and advocacy groups are now searching for new diagnostic criteria able to catch changes earlier. Additionally, they hope the diagnostic tools of the future can detect changes in the brain in addition to the changes in behavior associated with Alzheimer’s disease.