Friends and family members of Alzheimer’s patients endure the heartbreak of watching a loved one lose their memory and independence. As the United States demographic becomes increasingly top heavy—with the portion of the population over 65 years estimated to more than double by 2060—the need for Alzheimer’s disease research is immediate.
The suffering that Alzheimer’s inflicts is often indescribable. However, it is important to hear the stories of people in all stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Communities like the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba offer patients and their caretakers the opportunity to express their perspectives. Don de Vlaming attends a support group there where he connects with other individuals with Alzheimer’s. However, out in society, he loses the normalcy and ease that he feels within the group. Don said that “sometimes people have expectations that we can’t meet, and we are treated differently…[they] don’t realize that while we live in the same world, our world is not quite the same as theirs, even though we are still the same people inside.” Alzheimer’s disease is more than a diagnosis. It is a transformation in real people’s lives, calling into question the patient’s identity, future, and daily life.
Alzheimer’s disease is not constitute of the normal aging process. It is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that results in the degradation of memory, thinking capacity, and eventually the ability to carry out basic actions (1). Many times, people take for granted simple—yet essential—actions. The human brain not only receives sensory information, but it also processes that sensory input to make meaning using memories, context, and expectations. By erasing memories, Alzheimer’s disease also chips away at a person’s ability to interpret their surroundings.
Alzheimer’s disease is far from uncommon. It is the leading cause of dementia, the general term for the deterioration of mental ability that severely hinders daily life (2). In 2013, as many as five million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to fourteen million people, a nearly three-fold increase. In preparation for the expected increase in patients, health plans, hospital infrastructure and caregivers must adapt to the changing population.
The growing awareness of the imminence of Alzheimer’s disease has prompted many academic fields to race to decode the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease. It is relatively easy to diagnose a patient with Alzheimer’s disease after disease onset, however, much remains unknown about the causes and predictors. Pathologically, Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the formation of “plaques” and “tangles” in the brain, which prevent communication among nerve cells. Plaques are deposits of beta-amyloid protein that accumulate in the spaces between the nerve cells, while tangles are twisted fibers of tau protein that build up inside cells. These irregular structures form throughout the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient, affecting the exchange of acetylcholine, a hormone that is important for muscle action, learning and memory. This “amyloid hypothesis” has been studied in-depth and is generally well accepted in the medical and scientific fields (3).
There are other theories being explored. Some findings suggest that an infection may be one cause of disease. One team of researchers studying the infectious theory of Alzheimer’s disease noticed an unusually high level of viral DNA from two human herpes viruses in Alzheimer’s patients. Human herpes viruses causes a rash called roseola that is highly prevalent in young children (4). It is well understood that some viruses have the ability to lie dormant in neurons for decades by incorporating their genomes into human cell DNA (5). One common example of this is chickenpox, which can relapse as a more severe rash known as shingles (6). Herpes infection is one possible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, which is still being researched through clinical trials and brain imaging technology.
The Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) is dedicated to conducting research on “clinical, genetic, neuropathological, neuroanatomical, biomedical, psychosocial, and neuropsychological aspects of Alzheimer’s disease and related brain disorders.” This mission statement describes the wide variety of fields engaging in Alzheimer’s disease research. Dr. Janet Duchek is a professor and researcher at WUSTL. Her research focuses on how psychological factors such as personality can be used as predictors for Alzheimer’s disease. She underscored the interdisciplinary nature of Alzheimer’s research. While most researchers concentrate on developing treatments, Dr. Duchek’s work investigates character traits that may be used in early diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s disease is an emerging disease. Fortunately, advancements in technology and increased funding for research have transformed researchers’ ability to gain a clearer understanding of the human brain. With the possibility of earlier detection and better treatments on the scientific horizon, people with Alzheimer’s disease may retain a better quality of life. It is important to remember Don and all the individuals who struggle with the daily burdens of Alzheimer’s disease. Ultimately, it is these real human beings that motivate scientists and researchers to keep pushing the limits of human knowledge.
Edited by: Morgan Leff
Illustrated by: Caroline Cao