Insights into Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease affects an estimated four million American adults, about ten percent of all people over age 65.89 It is a progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain and impairs memory, thinking, and behavior. Alzheimer's disease is the most common and feared form of dementing illness, resulting in more than 100,000 deaths a year in the United States. That makes it the fifth leading cause of death in adults following heart disease, cancer, strokes, and prescription drugs. The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915), a German neurologist who observed the disease in his patients and initially reported it to the medical community in 1907.

Those affected with Alzheimer's disease become forgetful and confused. Although the progression is gradual and varies from person to person, the life span of a patient can be as much as 20 years after initial symptoms are observed. In addition to memory loss, there are other typical signs of the disease:

There is no diagnostic test for Alzheimer's disease. Physicians generally use a detailed medical history, conduct a thorough physical and neurologic exam, do mental status tests and psychiatric assessments, and other routine laboratory and neuropsychological tests.

The reason doctors find it so difficult to diagnose Alzheimer's disease is because not all patients follow the same pattern. Some people have a very rapid progression of dementia, others a much slower rate of decline. For this reason, some researchers believe the disease is actually several diseases. Part of the difficulty in conducting research for a cure lies in the fact that this disorder seems to be unique to human beings. Laboratory animals do not develop Alzheimer's disease.

Over 30 percent of the elderly with Alzheimer's use eight or more prescription drugs daily. Drug interactions probably play a greater role in dementia and confusional states than is currently realized.

The disease can occur at any age, but most commonly after the age of 50. Many cases of dementia are entirely reversible.

Every effort should be made to rule out these reversible factors. Over 80 percent of the elderly are deficient in one or more vitamins or minerals, which, if levels get too low, may induce dementia as we saw with vitamin B12, folic acid and niacin.

Various research studies have shown positive benefits to supplementation with vitamin E, choline and lecithin, although much more research needs to be done in this area. It seems to me we should try all the nutrients we have just discussed at the first signs of trouble.

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