Analyzing Alzheimer’s Disease: Exploring treatment options
Posted: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 8:01 pm
By Jessica Pritchard
Special to The Press
Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive degenerative disorder that attacks the nerve cells of the brain, or neurons, which results in the loss of memory, thinking and language skills and behavioral changes. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, signs are often mistaken as normal side effects of aging. Forgetfulness, fatigue, diminished interest in everyday activities; disorientation and loss of balance are some of the common overlooked signs. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that in 2007, 5.1 million Americans were living with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. That number is expected to grow rapidly as the population ages. The Alzheimer’s Association states that the annual cost of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient in 2007 was estimated to be about $18,400 for a patient with mild Alzheimer’s, $30,100 for a patient with moderate Alzheimer’s and $36,100 for a patient with severe Alzheimer’s. The annual cost of caring for Alzheimer’s patients in the United States in 2006 was $100 billion.
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s has come a long way. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America states that doctors can now diagnose the disease with 90 percent accuracy, but that it can only be confirmed by doing an autopsy, during which the doctor looks for the disease’s characteristic plaques and tangles that clog certain areas of brain tissue. Symptoms are divided into two categories: cognitive and psychiatric. It is very important that symptoms are distinguished correctly so that behavioral problems that are caused by a loss of cognitive functioning are not treated with anti-psychotic or anti-anxiety medications. Cognitive symptoms are amnesia, aphasia, apraxia and agnosia. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America knows these as the four As of Alzheimer’s disease. Amnesia is the loss of memory, whereas aphasia is not being able to communicate effectively with anyone. The ability to speak and write is sometimes lost. Apraxia is when the person cannot perform daily activities such as brushing teeth and getting dressed. Chewing, swallowing and walking can be lost in the final stages of the disease. Agnosia is when the person cannot correctly interpret signals from their five senses, such as not recognizing they have a full bladder. Personality changes, depression and hallucinations are major psychiatric symptoms. Personality changes are obvious in the early stages of the disease. Signs include irritability, withdrawal and isolation. Signs of depression can show at any age. The Alzheimer’s Association has developed a list of 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s. The symptoms include memory loss that affects job skills, difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with language, disorientation of time and place, poor or decreased judgment, problems with abstract thinking, misplacing things, changes in mood or behavior, changes in personality and loss of initiative. A person with several of these symptoms should see a doctor to be evaluated.
According to the Clinical Alzheimer Research book, a number of cohort studies have examined a possible relationship between dietary components and the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. At large studies done at Rush University Medical Center, higher rates of cognitive decline and/or dementia have been associated with higher intakes of saturated fats, trans-unsaturated fats or cholesterol. The book also states that there is good evidence that free-radical production and oxidative damage may be a causative agent for Alzheimer’s development. Free radicals can damage cells in the brain and other organs and speed the aging process. A study reported that higher intakes of antioxidants, particularly Vitamin C and Vitamin E, were associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, although the book on the perspectives of Alzheimer’s disease states that it is not recommended that people take high-dose Vitamin E supplements or other antioxidant pills to prevent dementia even though studies have suggested it.
As of now, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America states that there are various drugs constantly being tested for the effectiveness in controlling symptoms and preventing or halting the disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved the medications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Aricept has been approved for all stages of the disease. Exelon and Razadyne are approved in pill and patch form for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Namenda is for the treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s and may also slow the worsening of symptoms. Some of these medications can be used alone or in combination and can provide some relief from symptoms and may slow the decline in mental function to some extent.
According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, current research indicates that Alzheimer’s disease may be triggered by a combination of different factors including age, genetic makeup, oxidative damage to neurons from free radicals, serious head injuries, brain inflammation and environmental factors. Age is considered the most important known risk factor for the disease. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America says that there are two types of the disease: sporadic Alzheimer’s disease and Familial Alzheimer’s Disease (FAD). FAD is genetic, unlike sporadic. Less than 10 percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases are FAD, and usually occur between the ages of 30 and 60. Scientists have discovered that mutations on chromosomes 1, 14 and 21 cause early Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that is scary for both the person who has it and the family of that person. People with Alzheimer’s need support from family and friends to help cope with and understand this disease.
Jessica Pritchard is a senior dietetics major at the University of Tennessee at Martin.