Looking at Alzheimer’s

The death of Ronald Reagan after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease has not only caused many people to reflect on the life of the former president, but it has also allowed many to question his incurable disease and its effects.

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, which is a global category of diseases in which an individual begins to decline in their mental abilities. No one knows what causes Alzheimer’s disease, at this point, but there are a few risk factors, which contribute to the development of the disease. Robin Hilsabeck, a professor in medical and surgery neurology at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, said the biggest risk factor is age, but lower levels of education, and a history of head injuries also contribute to the development of the disease.

“People are living longer, so more people are getting it,” she said.

In addition, there is also some risk of inheritance because certain chromosomes are more hereditary. However, there is no clinical picture or pattern of the people who get Alzheimer’s.

Many times people with Alzheimer’s have trouble remembering new information, which is the primary impairment, Hilsabeck said, adding Alzheimer’s patients should remember experiences from their youth clearly.

Although not the cause, the disease factored into Reagan’s death.

“Eventually parts of the brain called beta amyloid plaques and the neurofibrillary tangles eat up the brain,” Hilsabeck said. “Once brain tissue slowly dies, the immune system starts to die.”

The official cause of death was pneumonia, as his immune system had shut down and could not fight the sickness.

Scientists believe as many as 4.5 million Americans suffer from the disease, which often begins about the age of 60. The best diagnosis for Alzheimer’s is early detection, which makes it easier to treat.

However, it is difficult to detect because there are no changes in the individual, Hilsabeck said. It begins slowly, and the individual may only show a symptom of mild forgetfulness. Ways to deal with Alzheimer’s include cognitive and physical stimulation of the patient.

“I have hope that there will be a cure for Alzheimer’s one day,” Hilsabeck said.

Right now, the Alzheimer’s disease market in the seven major pharmaceutical markets is worth $4.7 billion, and it is expected to increase to $6.1 billion by the year 2005 and $7.8 billion by 2010. The result will be many breakthroughs in the next ten years that will improve mental health expectancies to new levels.