Q: What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Ans. Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the fourth leading contributing cause of death among the elderly. Of the many forms of dementia, AD is the most common affecting roughly 5% of our population over 65 years old, and as much as 50% of those 85 and older. It is characterized by confusion, depression, paranoia and gradual loss of memory.
Q: What causes Alzheimer’s?
Ans. There is a Nobel Prize in store for whoever can explain this fully. Thus far we know there is a genetic component, various proteins and environmental factors. Each factor functions as an ‘enabling switch’, which is to say those with Alzheimer’s have the gene(s) for it, but not all with the gene will develop Alzheimer’s. Current research centers around interfering with the environmental factors, halting the production of the proteins that lead to plaques and neurofibrilary tangles, and generally protecting neurons from destruction. The most significant risk factor involved is advanced age.
Q: How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed?
Ans. Since there is no specific laboratory test for Alzheimer’s, it must be diagnosed by exclusion. A physician must rule out all the other potential explanations for symptoms before arriving at a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. New research into diagnostic markers and the more sensitive scans should soon yield a more definitive test. While there is a fairly accurate test that can detect subtle changes in brain chemistry and morphology well in advance, it requires a lumbar puncture as well as scans and is prohibitively expensive for general use.
Q: My loved one is exhibiting short-term memory loss, confusion, mood swings and asks the same question repeatedly. Is it Alzheimer’s?
Ans. Perhaps but there are many other possible explanations for these symptoms. It could be something as simple as dehydration, a vitamin deficiency, a chemical imbalance, or the side effects of medication. Only a physician can properly test and diagnose Alzheimer’s and you should have your loved one evaluated as soon as possible. Since all available treatments work to delay the effects of AD, early diagnosis can help preserve quality of life.
Q: My older sister has Alzheimer’s, will I get it too?
Ans. Possibly, though not necessarily. Those with siblings who develop AD are at greater risk than those without, but still it isn’t a sure thing. This genetic factor tends to be more applicable to the early onset type of AD.
Q: A neighbor’s husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year at age 52. He died last month. I thought Alzheimer’s lasted for years and years? Are there two types?
Ans. YES! Familial Alzheimer’s (or Early Onset Alzheimer’s) is a much more aggressive illness than the usual ‘senile onset’ variety. As the name implies, it is hereditary and can strike anytime between ages 30 and 55. The youngest case we have encountered thus far was age 42 at diagnosis and died less than nine months later. Familial cases make up less than 10% of all AD victims.
Q: My mother was recently diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s and the doctor advised me to start looking into institutional care. I would prefer to keep her at home and care for her myself for so long as she has left, is this an option?
Ans. For the short term, probably. Caregiving is easiest in the early stages and grows increasingly more difficult and tedious as the disease progresses. Eventually a point is reached where home care may not be practical, even with hired nursing help. A responsible caregiver should learn to recognize this point and accept the fact that advanced AD patients need more care than she is capable of providing. The physical and emotional strain on the caregiver should also be a factor in this decision.
Q: I have read that aluminum may be involved in Alzheimer’s. Should I avoid using products containing aluminum?
Ans. The brain tissue of AD patients indeed exhibit higher than usual concentrations of aluminum, bromide and silicon. It’s role as a causative agent, however, has not been shown in clinical studies. Canada, where water systems are routinely made of aluminum, does not have a higher incidence of AD than, say, Zambia where aluminum is rarely used in any capacity.
The rise of aluminum use after World War II and the increased frequency of AD in the same period may well be coincidental. Consider that during the same time span, new antibiotics and improved treatments for cancer, heart disease, etc also came about which enabled us to live longer. This extended lifespan is more likely the actual cause rather than aluminum.
Q: My father, who lives with us, was diagnosed with AD last week. What should I do first?
Ans. First you should get in touch with your nearest support group. Learn what resources are available and USE THEM right from the start. AD is a siege rather than a single battle, and you’ll need to conserve your own health in order to care for him. Less than 10% of caregivers actually take advantage of all the support available to them. You should also hold a family meeting without your father present and have a frank discussion about what is to come, financial considerations, and how each can contribute in time and funding.
Q: Why hasn’t a cure been found yet?
Ans. Unlike an illness caused by bacteria, Alzheimer’s has a range of causative factors. Add to this the fact that AD rarely exists in a vacuum; the patient usually has other conditions that must be treated also. This opens the door for drug-drug interactions that can be problematic if not fatal. Now consider the difficulty in getting any substance across the blood-brain barrier and you’ll see the challenge facing researchers. At present it appears that a ‘preventative’ rather than a cure per se is more likely. Several studies are in progress to find a means of interrupting the formation of plagues (and resultant destruction of neurons) by disrupting the protein formations involved in the process. Other studies attempt to clear existing plaques.
Q: How can I help?
Ans. Let your representatives in Congress know you are concerned and will be watching how they vote on Alzheimer’s-related bills. Work with your church, fraternal and social organizations to increase awareness and fund further research. Help other caregivers by sharing what you learn as well as offering support, even if it’s just a ‘how are you doing?’ phone call once a week. If you have something you think would be valuable for others to know, tell us and we’ll try to help get the word out.
Q: Other than research projects, what other services does the Foundation offer?
Ans. Research is our prime concern. We do fund some therapy programs at various institutions, but these are in conjunction with research projects. We also offer scholarships in fields of study relevant to Alzheimer’s (typically these are graduate-level stipends), field questions and refer to other resources via our toll-free line and email. At present we have no paid employee (we contract for services such as IT, newsletter publication, etc) outside the research milieu. We do not hire fundraisers nor do we actively solicit for contributions. If you receive a plea for contributions in the mail or via email, check the address closely before calling because we do not send these out nor do we sanction anyone sending them in our name.