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Biology 103
2003 First Paper
On Serendip

Alzheimer's Disease: a hopeless battle?

Charlotte Haimes

We all occasionally unintentionally forget to take out the garbage, brush our teeth, or the name of a person we have just met; and we eventually realize either instantaneously or slightly later that we have forgotten and, make sure to go back and take the garbage out, brush our teeth extra clean the following day and ask for that person's name again. This thought process occurs in our brain, a very complex organ that allows us to think and remember these routinely habits. As we get older, our body changes the same way our brain does; we start to forget on a more frequent basis and have more trouble remembering. This is a normal phenomenon in an aging person. However, many elderly people forget on a much larger scale and eventually lose the ability to care for themselves. Although half of the elderly's population carries these symptoms, their condition is considered abnormal and the leading cause for dementia, otherwise known as Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's was named after the German physician Dr. Alois Alzheimer who discovered the disease in 1906 in a middle-aged woman with dementia. After her autopsy, two abnormal brain structures were found that today are fundamental in understanding the progression of Alzheimer's disease. The disease basically consists of a gradual reduction of the brain size due to the fact that its nerve cells one by one die. This gradual process in the brain causes a person to suffer from dementia, which "is a brain disorder that seriously affects a person's ability to carry out daily activities" (9). Therefore, a person affected with Alzheimer's disease will gradually lose the ability to function by him or herself.

The cause of the disease is not yet understood, but the actual process inside the brain has been identified and demonstrated. Basically, the onset of the disease is provoked by abnormal structures inside the cerebral cortex, which is the region of the brain responsible for our thought process, memory, emotions and movement. The first abnormality occurs when enzymes, "a substance that causes chemical reactions" (4), cut a brain protein (amyloid precursor protein) into smaller fragments that are made up of another protein called beta-amyloid. These beta-amyloid fragments then stick together and form Alzheimer plaques. In addition to the plaques, a protein called tau, "which helps support [nerve] cell structure" (10) tangles and leads to the death of a cell. These are the two main causes that have reoccurred in many patients suffering from Alzheimer's, but researchers have yet to find what initiates this process.

There are different stages at which Alzheimer's progresses. The first stage affects the memory, but is too close to the normal aging symptom to determine whether or not it is the early stage of Alzheimer's. At the second stage, there is an increase in memory loss, as well as disorientation, changes in behavior and difficulty in handling daily chores. By the third stage, the patient is not only affected mentally but also physically: the ability to recognize, speak, and learn is now also affected and there is difficulty in getting up and controlling impulses. Anxiety is also a common trait as the patient The last stage is the most severe, where the patient is both mentally and physically impaired. The patient loses weight, cannot swallow properly, does not formulate sentences anymore, moans, and spends most of his or her time sleeping. "At the end, patients may be in bed much or all of the time. Most people with Alzheimer's die from other illnesses, frequently aspiration pneumonia. This type of pneumonia happens when a person is not able to swallow properly and breathes food or liquids into the lungs" (8). Other times, the patient will die of another illness because his body is susceptible to getting sick very easily. Usually, Alzheimer patients may live up to 20 years after being diagnosed, but the average is 8 to 10 years of life after the initial diagnosis.

There has been extensive research that is still going on at the present time in finding treatments for patients with Alzheimer disease. There are four different kinds of medication that are administered today to patients. All four of them slow down the progression of the disease, reestablish parts of the memory, stabilize behavior shifts and bring back self-confidence. The patient, early on in the progression of the disease, does realize that he or she is getting ill and is aware of the symptoms that occur on and off. This can be hard to accept and affects the morality of the patient. "Effective treatment of symptoms of Alzheimer's disease preserves patients' dignity and increases their comfort and independence" (7). Even though, they do not keep the disease from developing, it provides temporary relief. The families and the caregivers feel less overwhelmed and can have a more human rapport with the ill one. The patient using a treatment must also always take it consistently or else the disease will progress at an even faster rate.

There are also other ways of treating patients with Alzheimer's. Vitamin E is commonly used because it prevents memory loss if taken in large doses. The usual dosage is 30 to 60 units, while Alzheimer patients take one thousand units of vitamin E. The side effects are inevitable, such as "bleeding and upset stomach" (7). There is also a Chinese therapy called Ginkgo Biloba, which "is an over-the-counter herbal treatment alleged to improve memory, attention and other thinking functions" (7). This treatment has not been proven successful in preventing the disease. Researchers are still in the process of looking into the effects of this herbal treatment. To the present day, a cure for Alzheimer's disease still has not been found. Over four million Americans are affected by this disease. Ten percent are age 60 and over and forty percent are age 85 and over. Alzheimer's disease is not only present in the United States, but also worldwide. "It is estimated that by 2020, 30 million people will be affected by this devastating disorder worldwide and by 2050, the number could increase to 45 million" (11). The statistics show the rapid development of this disease, despite all the money and the research that has been put into towards finding a cure.

Alzheimer's disease is a traumatic experience for both the patient and his or her close ones who are in direct contact and see the progressive changes, both physical and mental. There is an intense amount of care needed for the patient and can be very draining for the members of the family and the caregiver. It is one of those tragic situations where you are constantly battling for survival knowing that the ultimate outcome is the inevitable fatality of the disease.


WWW Sources

1)About the Human Brain

2)History of Alzheimer's Disease

3)What is Alzheimer's Disease?

4)The Causes




8)The Different Stages of Alzheimer's Disease

9)General Information

10)More Causes


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