First described by German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer in 1906, Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive brain disorder in which the nerve cells in the brain gradually die off. It afflicts an estimated 26 million people world-wide, and of those, approximately 4.5 million live in the United States. It is the seventh leading cause of death in the country and the fifth leading cause of death for those over age 65. 17% of women and 10% of men age 55 and older can expect to develop AD in their remaining lifetime (the difference between the genders is thought by most to be because of greater female longevity rather than an increased risk for women).
People may show early signs of the ailment for years, but if the symptoms are noticed at all they're most often attributed to old-age or stress. The most common indicator is short-term memory loss. As the illness progresses, Alzheimer's patients may experience confusion, irritability, inability to do familiar tasks or navigate familiar surroundings, an inability to use language effectively, long-term memory loss, and loss of bodily functions.
The cause of the disease isn't well understood but appears to be associated with plaques (deposits of amyloid, a fibrous protein, in the gray matter of the brain), neurofibrillary tangles (proteins found within the neurons of the brain), and a loss of the connections between the nerve cells in the brain. All three lead to diminished cell function and cell death.
Early-onset Alzheimer's, as experienced by the protagonist of Still Alice, is perhaps the most insidious form of the disease. While Alzheimer's isn't generally diagnosed until the patient is over 65, the early-onset variety generally afflicts individuals in their 50s or early 60s (although it can appear in those as young as 16). This type accounts for only 5% to 10% of all Alzheimer's sufferers, but those impacted are often at the peak of their careers, not to mention their lives, and thus they and their families tend to be more impacted by the effects of the disease, both emotionally and financially.
Half of all early-onset Alzheimer's cases are the result of genetic predisposition. There are three types, each related to a specific gene mutation: Presenilin 1 (PS1), Presenilin 2 (PS2) and Amyloid beta precursor protein (APP). All three forms are passed from parent to child; the chance of a child inheriting the mutation from an affected parent is approximately 50%.
There is no cure or known treatment for Alzheimer's disease, although in 2008 there were more than 500 clinical trials in process.
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This article is from the April 1, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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