Alzheimer’s disease affects the central nervous system and is most common among elderly people. It is a progressive disease in which brain cells degenerate until eventually the disease leads to the patient’s death.
The main symptoms are cognitive decline and memory loss. As the disease progresses, more brain functions become impaired, until patients in the final stages are no longer able to care for themselves and require assistance in all everyday activities.
It should be noted that in most cases, the cause of death is secondary to the disease. For instance, patients may die because of pressure ulcers caused by prolonged time in bed, or because of lung infections.
The cause for Alzheimer’s disease is still unknown, it is still not fully understood why the disease develops in certain people. The answer, most likely, is a combination of factors, some are genetic, and others are environmental.
Here is what is known today about the causes associated with the disease:
- The prevalence of this disease is higher in women than in men.
- Age: the prevalence of Alzheimer’s increases with age.
- Education level: research has shown that increased intellectual activity that is characteristic of academic professions may help delay symptoms. The higher a person’s education level, the lower their chances of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Other diseases: risk factors for Alzheimer’s include diseases such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia (excess lipids in the blood), high blood pressure, and traumatic head injuries.
- Healthy lifestyle: it appears that people who avoid smoking, engage in physical activity, avoid high alcohol consumption, and live more peaceful lives, are at a decreased risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, this condition affects patients until their death. However, several forms of therapy may help reduce progression and improve quality of life.
- Medication – Certain drugs affect the brain and break down the chemical “acetylcholine” responsible for memory and learning. Other drugs, such as “Abixa”, help change the chemical substance in the brain and improve learning abilities. Drug therapy causes certain side effects (such as dizziness and sleepiness). Another downside to drug therapy is that it is only effective for a limited time and not for the entire duration of the disease (that progresses over the years).
- Complementary therapy – complementary therapy that may help patients cope with the disease includes music therapy, cognitive therapy, physical activity, and more.
The genetic basis of Alzheimer’s disease
Most cases of Alzheimer’s disease are sporadic. Less than ten percent of patients suffer from familial Alzheimer’s. Extensive research in people with different types of the disease show that it involves various genes that have not yet been interpreted.
For instance, all patients with familial Alzheimer’s carried gene mutations located on chromosomes 1, 14, and 21. However, these mutations vary between patients and therefore, the presence of a mutation does not guarantee that the disease will develop, since Alzheimer’s is a multifactorial disease that involves several components that must occur simultaneously.
Patients with sporadic Alzheimer’s seem to have a common mutation to the gene apoE located on chromosome 19.
Genetic testing – can Alzheimer’s be detected through genetic tests?
There are currently no routine genetic tests that detect Alzheimer’s disease gene mutations, the only tests performed today are part of research. A single test that could predict the risk for this disease with absolute certainty still seems like a solution from the distant future.
It should be noted that since the causes for this disease’s outbreak are still unknown, extreme caution is necessary when detecting gene mutations that may be relevant.
For instance, people who find out they are carriers of a gene that could be linked to this disease may become depressed. Similarly, employers who find out that one of their employees carries the mutation may decide not to promote that employee to a senior management position. All this while gene mutations do not guarantee that the carrier will indeed develop Alzheimer’s disease.