The Many Faces of Dementia:
Editors note: This article is reprinted in part with permission from the Alzheimer’s Association. For more information, go to http://www.alz.org or contact the 24 hour helpline at 1-800-272-3900.
What if we could diagnose Alzheimer’s before symptoms started? The hope is future treatments could then target the disease in its earliest stages, before irreversible brain damage or mental decline has occurred. Research on new strategies for earlier diagnosis is among the most active areas in Alzheimer’s science, and funding from the Alzheimer’s Association has spurred significant advances and steady progress. Research on multiple fronts includes Biomarkers for earlier detection, brain imaging and neuroimaging, genetic risk profiling and a number of other areas.
In 2011, the National Institute on Aging/Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institutes of Health published guidelines for criteria for research, the first time in more than 27 years. Careful defining of pre-symptomatic, mildly symptomatic but pre-dementias began creating distinct and measurable changes in the brains of affected people years perhaps decades before memory and thinking symptoms are noticeable.
In 2012, the president asked Congress for a half billion dollars for Alzheimer’s research. That’s in addition to the $450 million the National Institute of Health already was spending. Alzheimer’s disease effects more than 5 million people in the United States. It is estimated that the disease costs our country $180 billion dollars a year.
Clearly, research is the key to finding solutions to a devastating disease.
Scientists have identified several hallmark Alzheimer’s brain abnormalities, including: plaques, microscopic clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid peptide, tangles, twisted microscopic strands of the protein tau (rhymes with “wow”). Loss of connections among brain cells responsible for memory, learning and communication. These connections, or synapses, transmit information from cell to cell. Inflammation resulting from the brain’s effort to fend off the lethal effects of the other changes under way.
Neuroimaging is among the most promising areas of research focused on early detection. Today, a standard workup for Alzheimer’s disease often includes structural imaging with magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography and positron emission tomography scans. These tests are currently used chiefly to rule out other conditions that may cause symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s but require different treatment. Tomorrow, our research and new applied technologies may well have the answers and solutions to this devastating disease.
This article was submitted by Tor Eckert, who has owned and operated an Alzheimer’s care home, become an advocate on Dementia Care with various organizations and was designated as a Healthcare Professional by the Alzheimer’s Foundation. He can be contacted at TorEckert@sbcglobal.net or cell phone 530-277-0879.
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