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Alzheimer's Disease

A Summary

by: George Pararas-Carayannis, Ph.D.

(Excerpts from summary prepared under contract for the ReGenesis Medical Center/ Dec 2000)

Introduction

Aging of the brain is a continuous linear process that begins at conception. However, the brain is a unique organ in that it has enormous recuperative characteristics and the ability to constantly rewire itself and regenerate for more efficient operation.

Alzheimer' s is a common, and very serious, degenerative disease which leads to the gradual degeneration of the human brain. The illness impairs mental and emotional functions in older adults, causing them to lose their memory and their ability to care for themselves.



Historical Background

Alois Alzheimer, a German neuropathologist is credited with the discovery in 1906 of the disease, named after him. Specifically Alzheimer examined under the microscope brain lesions from one of his patients who had died, following a long stay in a mental institution. Alzheimer was able to detect twin markers in the affected brain tissue. These were plaques in the empty spaces between nerve cells and stringy tangles erupting from within the nerve cells.

The significance of these markers has been debated for almost 90 years. For a long time, scientists have wondered which, if not both, of the twin markers may be responsible for Alzheimer's disease. In recent years, intense research has revealed additional genetic and environmental clues for the development of the disease, the formation of the plaques, and the mechanism by which brain cells shrink and die.

 

Alzheimer's may reach epidemic proportions in the future

It is estimated that about 20 million people around the world are suffering from the disease. In the U.S. alone about 4 million people are presently affected. The numbers of those affected by Alzheimer's are rapidly increasing as the world population grows and people live longer, thanks to the development of vaccines and antibiotics.

Unless a cure is found, it is expected that Alzheimer's disease will reach epidemic proportions around the world in a few years. It is estimated that by the year 2050, the number of people affected by the disease will increase by threefold, to about 60 million, with about 14 million in the U.S. alone.


Alzheimer's and Senile Dementia

There is no such thing as an aging brain in the sense that it connotes some pivotal event or period in a human life when something happens that is not desirable. According to studies presented at the World Alzheimer Congress 2000, people can get older without getting worse mentally. Studies at the Washington University in St. Louis, indicate that Alzheimer's disease is not inevitable. Some people can maintain mental acuity well after age 90.

When mental difficulties arise, they are not necessarily a function of aging but rather of a disease which occurs in stages, over a long period of time. Whether a person will be affected by Alzheimer's Disease at an earlier or later stage in life, probably depends on a combination of genetics, lifestyle, education, and just plain luck.

Alzheimer's disease is often confused with Senile Dementia which also is a progressive or permanent decline in intellectual function and often, but not always, is caused by Alzheimer's disease. Senile Dementia is non-specific and may be caused also by other organic diseases that affect the brain.

Stages and Symptoms of Alzheimer's

There are several tests used to diagnose the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms and the stage that a patient may be in.

First Stage (Mild - from two to four years)

Loss of initiative and interest in favorite activities and hobbies
Forgetfulness of the names of common things, such as bread or water.
Increased forgetfulness that interferes with ability to complete tasks.
Confusion with numbers and their meaning.
Decreased judgmental ability and common sense

Second Stage (Moderate - from two to eight years)

Forgetting common daily tasks
Inability to recognize close friends and family
Wondering around, getting lost
Increased confusion, anxiety and personality changes
Delusions
Insomnia

Third Stage (Severe - from one to three years)

Inability to remember anything or to process new information
Cannot recognize family members
Cannot use or understand words but still responds to music, touch or eye contact
Difficulty eating, swallowing
Inability to dress, bathe or groom self: unable to control bladder and bowel function.
Bedridden

Causes of Alzheimer's Disease

The actual causes of Alzheimer's disease are not yet known with certainty. Alzheimer's is not related to problems of the circulatory system. However, the disease is always characterized by the presence of sticky plaques outside the neurons and stringy tangles within them. It is not yet known whether the lesions occur simultaneously, whether one precedes the other, or whether something else triggers them. There are several schools of thought as to the cause of the disease.

Beta Amyloid Theory : Many researchers now believe that the culprit that causes Alzheimer's is a fragment of a very sticky protein known as "beta amyloid". Excessive amounts of beta amyloid may be toxic to the neurons in the brain, in the same way that excess cholesterol is toxic to the cells in the walls of arteries and veins. Alzheimer's patients appear to produce an abundance of beta amyloid which is a protein fragment of a much larger protein known as the amyloid-precursor protein, or APP for short. Beta amyloid fragments are produced when enzymes known as "secretases" react with APP. An abundance of sticky beta amyloids appears to form the plaques observed on the surface of neuron cells. When these plaques grow dense, an inflammation develops. A reaction by the body's immune system cells winds up killing innocent nerve cells. The good news is that, If indeed beta amyloid is the the cause of Alzheimer's disease, therapies will soon begin to be implemented.

Apoe Theory : Another group of scientists believe that APOE4, a gene that was recently discovered, may be responsible for the susceptibility of people to Alzheimer's disease. According to this school of thought, the predisposing gene APOE4 may be even present at birth, and may not manifest until age 65 or older. The significance of APOE4 is not yet well understood. However, it is believed that it plays a role in the clearing of the amyloid plaques.

Tau Theory : A third school of thought advocates that another molecule, known as "tau", assembles microtubules that support the structure of the nerve cells, in the same way that ties hold railroad track in place. Chemical changes in the nerve cells cause the tau molecules to change shape. When this happens, the tau molecules can no longer hold the microtubules properly aligned. The "railroad ties" begin to twist and tangle causing the cells to shrink and die.

Genetic and environmental factors play a significant role in the development of Alzheimer's

Ongoing research studies indicate that several genetic and environmental factors may be responsible for the development of Alzheimer's disease. Understanding the differences between predisposing genetic and preventable environmental risk factors, may lead to earlier diagnosis and halting in the progression of the disease.

Genetically predisposed individuals could be diagnosed earlier and receive treatment long before their brains stop functioning. Similarly, individuals exposed to environmental risk factors could be diagnosed and treated earlier. Furthermore, if identified early, the environmental risk factors can be mitigated.

Genetic Risk Factors: Considerable progress has been reported in tracking down the genes that put people at risk for Alzheimer's disease. Genetic research is concentrated on chromosome 21 for the coding that produces the amyloid-precursor protein, or APP for short.

Since APOE4 appears to contribute to the development of more than 60% of all late stage Alzheimer's cases, genetic encoding research is concentrated on Chromosome 21. Other research is being carried to identify still other Alzheimer's-susceptibility genes. For example, on the genetic encoding of chromosome 12 for a gene known as A2M. It is still a little too early to say which of the genetic factors predisposes people to Alzheimer's. However, a breakthrough in research may soon occur and thus lead to effective treatment of this terrible disease.

Environmental Risk Factors: Several environmental factors and life styles may be also responsible for putting people at risk for Alzheimer's disease. For example a diet high in fat and cholesterol may elevate the risk.

Factors such as education appear to lower the risk of cognitive decline. Recent studies have shown that the most rapid decline in cognition was associated with those who had less than nine years of education.

Clinical studies correlate Alzheimer's Disease to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes

Recent clinical studies have provided most encouraging news correlating genetic markers of Alzheimer's disease and risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. During the course of the studies, a larger percentage of individual patients who had both genetic markers of Alzheimer's and risk factors of heart disease, exhibited lower mental acuity than those without heart disease risk factors. The significance of these findings is that mitigation of heart disease factors, not only lowers the possibility of a heart attack or stroke, but it also may lower or delay the incidence of Alzheimer's.

Cure is not yet available

Although there is extensive ongoing research, no cure has yet been found for Alzheimer's. However, the National Institute on Aging reports on research studies related to the discovery of a new molecular marker for Alzheimer's disease. This marker is a cellular enzyme. Such research may result in a breakthrough on a cure.



Diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer's Disease

There is a great deal of optimism that early screening and diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease will result in treatments that may reduce some of the risk factors.

Diagnosis: Alzheimer's is a terrifying affliction. Diagnosing the disease can be as devastating to the family as it is to the patient. Doctors administer several medical and psychological tests to make an Alzheimer's diagnosis. Standard allopathic (medical) approaches and treatments, are used. Risk factors are evaluated. Prevention measures are discussed and evaluated.

Treatment: Traditional medical treatment may depend on the developmental stage of the disease. Various drug therapy treatments are used in treating Alzheimer's disease. None of these actually provides a cure. Doctors believe that they will shortly have on hand several drugs capable of slowing - and perhaps even halting - the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Preventive measures for Alzheimer's disease in Women: According to the National Institute on Aging, a 16 year study has provided evidence that estrogen replacement therapy may be protective against Alzheimer's Disease in women.

 

Complementary therapies

In addition to the standard medical diagnosis and treatment, there are numerous nontraditional therapies, which may complement the therapy of Alzheimer's patients. Many of these alternative therapies are beginning to be the focus of growing interest on the part of mainstream medicine. Alternative therapies may include such things as herbs and acupuncture.

A look to the future

In the not too distant future, it is very possible that Alzheimer's disease will be effectively treated and even prevented. Ongoing research is uncovering new and startling insights into Alzheimer's. Better understanding of the genetic and environmental risk factors will lead to much earlier diagnosis of the disease and treatment before cognitive functions of the brain begin to fade. In the future, Alzheimer's disease may be viewed as serious illness as heart disease is, that perhaps can be treated and even be prevented with proper therapies.

Alternative Treatment of Alzheimer's Disease

In view of the fact that clinical studies have correlated Alzheimer's Disease to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and chelation therapy may be very helpful.

Antioxidants Vitamins and Minerals : The use of antioxidants administered through intravenous chelation therapy contributes significantly to the an overall better health of Alzheimer's patients. Similarly, vitamins and mineral administered intravenously have much better absorption rates and can also help with overall health problems. Intravenously admitted EDTA, Glutathione and Phosphatidyl Choline (a nutrient for the brain cells) can help improve circulation of blood to the heart, the body and the brain These will also help remove some of the plaque that often is found in the walls of arteries and veins.

Home care of Alzheimer's patients

In parallel with these treatments, lifestyle and behavior changes, diet, exercise, body mind approaches, and similar self care measures can help Alzheimer's patients cope and even slow down progression of the disease.

 

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON CHRONIC AND OTHER DISEASES GO TO THE WEBSITE OF HEALTH CARE SOURCE AND ITS PAGE ON ALZHEIMER'S

Miscellaneous Summaries on Chronic Illnesses

heart disease | | stroke | diabetes | | high blood pressure | | high cholesterol | | Alzheimer's | | Parkinson's | | arthritis | | chronic fatigue | | poor circulation | | brain injury | | multiple sclerosis | | cerebral palsy | | life extension | | memory loss |

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