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What is Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia in older adults. The words "Alzheimer's" and "Dementia" are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. "Dementia" is a term that means a person is no longer able to function on their own because of a lasting impairment of multiple mental abilities affecting memory, attention, and reasoning.

Dementia can be caused by many different medical conditions, such as a severe head injury or major stroke. Other common dementias are Lewy body dementia, Frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, and Parkinson's disease dementia

Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain that causes a steady decline in memory. As a form of dementia, Alzheimer's is the most common form. It accounts for approximately 50% of all dementia cases. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive degenerative disease that attacks the brain and results in impaired memory, thinking, and behaviour.

The American Psychiatric Association's definition extends the definition further.

"The essential feature of the presence of dementia of insidious onset and gradual progressive course for which all other specific causes have been excluded by the history, physical examination, and laboratory tests. Dementia involves a multifaceted loss of intellectual abilities, such as memory, judgement, abstract thought, and higher cortical functions, and changes in personality and behaviour."

Why is Alzheimer's Different?

When I was first researching Alzheimer's after my mother was diagnosed one question I asked was ... Why is Alzheimer's different for families than, say, cancer?

Alzheimer's is a disease of mental function rather of physical body (such as cancer), therefore it can cause endless dysfunction in the family itself. Alzheimer's is extremely variable, as varied as people are, and this is not true of most diseases.

Alzheimer's asks of families that they learn new ways to make a successful relationship with the person who has the illness and that they become willing to let go of the past picture of who the sick person once was. This is why it is very important for all families to tackle the Alzheimer's problem together from the outset, if they can.

This of course does not detract from the fact that many families who have to deal with cancer don't end up in a caregiving role. I can definately tell you that is not the case ... My own family and I have been both caregivers and patients of cancers.

The Mortality Question

Naturally, the question asked most often once diagnosed is ... "How long do people live once they develop Alzheimer's?"

The simple answer is ... The course of the disease varies greatly. (CLICK HERE for more detailed information on the Stages and generally accepted progression of Alzheimer's / Dementia)

Therefore, despite there being no definite cure Alzheimer's should not be looked at in the short term. Medical research is continually finding more about the disease. My own mother was a part of the research on one of the treatments now used commonly to assist with dealing with Alzheimer's. Although it was devasting to make the decision to remove her from the trials in the later stages, It is my families belief that her involvement with Exelon trials helped prolong her quality of life for several more years than would of been the case without it.

For those expecting an answer from me ...

Having to manage with Alzheimer's can range anywhere from three to twenty-six years depending on the type of Dementia diagnosed .

The average survival rate from time of diagnosis when my mother suffered was estimated to be nine years. However, in hindsight we believe she had a form of Dementia long before she was actually diagnosed and still managed the disease for almost 11 years. (I emphasize this is by no means set in concrete as the course of the disease varies greatly from patient to patient.)



Can Alzheimer's Be Inherited?

Many people with dementia are concerned that their disease may have been inherited and that they may pass it on to their children. Family members of people with dementia are sometimes concerned that they might be more likely to develop dementia themselves. Although there are no definitive tests that predict whether most people will get the disease, people sometimes want such information for legal and financial planning purposes or to help weigh the need for long-term-care insurance.

Alzheimer's disease can't be prevented or cured, and it ranks second only to cancer among diseases that people fear. Still, a study last year found that about two-thirds of respondents would want to know if they were destined to get the disease.  Current tests to identify the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease when no symptoms are present provide only limited information, and health insurance generally doesn't cover them. But that's not stopping some people from trying to learn more.

Genes do play some role in the development of dementia, but their specific effects vary considerably. Medical research has identified four genes that influence disease development. Three of these genes affect younger people, and one affects older people. The three genes that have a major effect on risk of Alzheimer's disease are the amyloid precursor protein (APP) gene and two presenilin genes (PSEN-1 and PSEN-2). People with any of these genes tend to develop the disease in their 30s or 40s, and come from families in which several members also have early onset Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, gradually robs people of their memory and other intellectual capabilities. Most of the 5 million people who have Alzheimer's developed it after age 60. In these cases, the disease is likely caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors. About 5 percent of Alzheimer's patients have inherited an early-onset form that is generally linked to a mutation on one of three chromosomes.

The prevalence of these genes is as follows:

  • A small number of families worldwide have a genetic fault on chromosome 21 in the APP gene, which affects production of the protein amyloid. Amyloid build-up in the brain has been linked to Alzheimer's disease.
  • A slightly larger number of families carry a fault on chromosome 14 (PSEN-1) causing early onset familial Alzheimer's disease.
  • A very small group of families (mainly in the United States) has a fault on chromosome 1 (PSEN-2), causing early onset familial Alzheimer's disease.

About one third of the people with dementia have a close relative who has, or has had, dementia in some form. Although not a normal part of ageing Alzheimer's occurs relatively frequently in the elderly, for people over 80 years old, 1 in 5 have a form of dementia regardless of family history.

Current research suggests that there are several types of Alzheimer's disease that exist with different biological causes. Scientists have established that a rare inherited form of Alzheimer's does exist in some families. If you have particular concerns contact the Alzheimer's Association in your state.

Of course if you were to ask me based on my historical links with Alzheimer's, despite any data the research may show that the disease is likely caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors … I still believe I could put up a pretty good argument to say that inheriting it is  possible.
Personally, I have the dream that researchers will find a cure ... in the not too distant future ... and our children’s children will say “What is Alzheimer’s” … because it no longer exists.

Personal Note to Caregivers
For more pages of Interest see the following pages ...
Statistics | Stages | Notable Persons