Knowing What Alzheimer's Is . . . and Is Not

Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia. Although all Alzheimer's patients have dementia, not all dementia patients have Alzheimer's disease. The Alzheimer's Association defines Alzheimer's disease as "an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks." Alzheimer's is a fatal disease, ending inevitably in death.

Alzheimer's disease was named after a German physician, Alois Alzheimer, who first identified the condition in 1906 when he performed an autopsy on the brain of a woman who'd been suffering severe memory loss and confusion for years. He observed plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the woman's brain tissue and correctly hypothesized that these abnormal deposits were responsible for the patient's loss of memory and other cognitive problems. To this day, Alzheimer's can only be diagnosed with 100 percent accuracy through an autopsy that reveals the presence of the characteristic plaques and tangles. However, a comprehensive examination and good workup do provide a reliable diagnosis with greater than 90 percent accuracy.

Abnormal deposits of specific proteins inside the brain disrupt normal brain function and cause the cognitive and functional problems typically associated with AD. Eventually, as the deposits spread throughout the brain, brain tissue starts dying, which leads to further cognitive impairment. The resulting brain shrinkage can be seen in CT scans and MRIs. Current research is focused on trying to determine what causes these deposits and is looking for ways to prevent or reverse them before they cause permanent brain damage.

Healthcare professionals are already sounding the alarm in the halls of Congress, warning that many more resources must be devoted to Alzheimer's disease research to avoid a catastrophe in the not-too-distant future. The National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging, both agencies of the federal government, are partnering with various universities and research facilities in a concerted effort to foster the search for answers, and perhaps even to find a cure or a preventive agent like a vaccine. Various advocacy groups are calling for national programs to offer training and support for the family caregivers who provide 75 percent of the care for Alzheimer's patients.

While important issues are being sorted and relegated to further study, some insight into AD already exists. Here's what Alzheimer's is not:

  • Curable
  • Contagious
  • A natural part of the aging process
  • Something you get from using deodorant or cooking in aluminum pans
  • Inevitable if you live long enough

Although certain familial forms of Alzheimer's Disease do run in families, these forms are extremely rare, accounting for less than 5 percent of all cases. So just because your mother or your brother got Alzheimer's Disease doesn't automatically mean that you're going to get it as well.

No test can predict whether you'll get Alzheimer's disease unless you have the very rare inherited form of Alzheimer's. A blood test exists that can tell you whether you have a certain form of a cholesterol-carrying protein associated with a higher incidence of Alzheimer's disease, but that's all that it can tell you. The test can't tell you whether you'll actually develop the condition because at least 50 percent of the people who have the risk factor never actually get AD.

For ethical reasons, healthcare professionals advise against taking this blood test or undergoing other genetic testing because they want to spare their patients unnecessary worry about something that'll probably never happen even if the tests do come out positive. They also recommend against testing because if a person does find that he or she has inherited the gene or the risk factor, this information may negatively impact the person's ability to get health insurance and long-term care coverage.

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