AT THIS TIME OF YEAR, it is common to reflect on the occurrences of the previous 12 months and to contemplate the year ahead. However, think for a moment what it would be like if you could not remember any details of your life last year, and you did not have much to look forward to in the coming one. For the 4,000,000 Americans who suffer from Alzheimer's disease, this is reality. Alzheimer's is an equal opportunity disease; individuals from every race, sex, and walk of life are at risk for developing it. One out of every 10 people over the age of 65 and nearly half of those over 85 suffer from this debilitating malady.
First described by Alois Alzheimer in 1906, Alzheimer's disease (pronounced ALTS-hi-merz) is a fatal, progressive, degenerative condition. It attacks the brain, resulting in impaired memory, cognition, and behavior, and it is the most common form of dementia. The disease has a gradual onset, causing a person to forget recent events and experience difficulty performing familiar tasks. The rate at which it progresses varies, but the symptoms eventually include confusion, personality and behavior alterations, and impaired judgment. Communication becomes increasingly difficult as the affected person struggles to find the proper words, finish thoughts, or follow directions. Inevitably, patients will require 24-hour supervision, including assistance with daily activities such as eating, grooming, and toileting. Eventually, they will become totally incapable of an independent lifestyle. Those afflicted with Alzheimer's live an average of eight years, but can survive for 20 years or more from the onset of symptoms. Unless a cure or prevention is found, the number of individuals in the U.S. with Alzheimer's will jump to 14,000,000 by the year 2050. Worldwide, it is estimated that 22,000,000 will develop Alzheimer's disease by the year 2025.
The impact of the disease extends well beyond those who have it. Alzheimer's has a devastating effect on caregivers, too. At least 70% of those stricken live at home, where their families provide 75% of the needed care. Alzheimer's caregivers report high levels of emotional and physical stress and are twice as likely as noncaregivers to report physical and mental health complications. One in eight will become ill or injured as a direct result of caregiving, and one in three uses medication for caregiving-related difficulties. Depression among caregivers is three times the norm for people in their age group.
Alzheimer's disease also is taking its toll on America's pocketbooks. The cost of care, including payments for diagnosis, treatment, nursing home stays, and formal or paid nursing, is more than $100,000,000,000 each year. Alzheimer's disease costs American businesses and estimated $33,000,000,000 a year due to absenteeism of the caregivers involved. Seventy percent of caregivers contribute part of their personal income or savings to their loved one's care. The imminent epidemic of Alzheimer's disease threatens to bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid as baby boomers enter the age of highest risk.
While scientists do not know what causes the disease, Alzheimer's is characterized by the formation of abnormal structures in the brain, or beta-amyloid protein deposits, called plaques. It is not known whether the deposits cause brain cell death or if cell death is a resuit of the disease. As the plaques accumulate in affected individuals, nerve cell connections are reduced and the cells eventually die. Areas of the brain that influence short-term memory tend to be affected first. Later, the disease works its way into sections that control other intellectual and physical functions. The malady affects people in different ways, making it difficult for medical professionals to predict how an individual's condition will deteriorate. Some experts classify the disease by stage (early, middle, and late or advanced). Yet, specific behaviors and how long they last vary greatly, even within each of the stages. …