Alzheimer's disease is most common amongst those over the age of 65. As the percentage of elderly people in Europe continually increases, this disease could prove problematic. There are even fears that, with such a massive strain, the health systems could approach a collapse.
The typical symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include memory loss and orientation difficulties, leading to a loss of all cognitive functions. Asides from the direct effects on the patient, the disease causes much stress and trauma for the family of the patient. Sufferers of the disease can also develop behavioural problems: agitation, anxiousness or difficulties with sleeping. This normally needs to the carer/family requiring outside support.
Peter, 79, was a former design engineer with an active nature. Three years ago he started to show signs of memory loss and now he cannot cope on his own any more. His wife, Sylvia, who is also his carer, has seen how Peter has lost all recognition of his children, grandchildren, and the rest of his family.
It was at RICE, the Research Institute for the Care of the Elderly in Bath, England, where Peter was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. As part of a trial he is now testing new drugs against Alzheimer's disease. The current research taking place in Europe is aimed at understanding age related diseases and methods to lighten the burden on not just the patients, but also their carers.
At the Alzheimer Disease Research Centre at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, Barbara Fahlen has herself tested for the disease. At the age of 62, she feels that she has become forgetful. A diagnosis involves a test of memory and spatial relationships. Although it is shown that she does not have the disease, she will return to the Institute in 18 months. An early diagnosis can be useful in identifying possible causes of cognitive impairment.
Another useful diagnostic tool is MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), a type of neuro-imaging, which can analyse the brain structure. With the patient in a strong magnetic field, 3D images can be made of the tissue, in this case brain tissue. MRI scans can show the typical degeneration and shrinkage of a brain from a sufferer of advanced Alzheimer's disease.
It is also possible to see the disease in brain tissue samples. It appears as dark flecks known as plaques and tangles. A plaque is a build-up of the protein beta amyloid that blocks their signals sent by neurons. Tangles are the disjointed nerve endings, typical of the disease. With the identification of beta amyloid and the arrival of the first generation of drug treatment, there is now some hope in combating the disease.
It is evident that certain lifestyle factors can contribute to the likelihood of Alzheimer's disease. An active lifestyle, mental training and social involvement can decrease the risk, furthermore factors like avoiding high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity. Miia Kivipelto, associate professor at the Karolinska Institute, gives the good advice: “Everything that is good for the heart is also good for the brain.”
Alzheimer's disease was earlier believed to be the natural course of events as one grows old, and certainly not common enough to be of any concern. Today it is estimated that there are about 26 million sufferers world-wide. With an increasing aged population, that number is expected to be four times that of today by 2050. It is estimated that by 2025 the percentage of over-65s will raise from 15.4% of the EU population to 22.4%, which will be in correlation with a rise of Alzheimer's disease patients. Now the race is on to find a treatment or cure before the burden on the health systems become too much.