Alzheimer’s: Darkening Corners of Once Bright Minds

November 26th 1901 saw the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, Alois Alzheimer, historically cement his observations of the first woman to ever be diagnosed with the condition, Auguste Deter, 51 years old.  ‘She sits on the bed with a helpless expression… she looked as if she didn’t understand the question… she seems trying to remember… her spontaneous speech is full of paraphrasic derailments and perseverations’.

Over a century later, the disease’s namesake holds strong.

Alois Alzheimer

Dr Alois Alzheimer

With an estimated 650,000 people in the UK suffering from dementia, set to rise to 1 million by 2021, an ageing population and consideration of how the disease causes once bright minds, to see glints of memories passed consumed into oblivion; the recent rise in research funding towards this field, could not have come sooner.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, with a range of effects, from the characteristic loss of memory to the disintegration of reasoning skills. The root causes remain obscure, however it seems evident that the brain experiences atrophy – a process whereby the brain itself wastes away in accordance with the degeneration of neurons. Spreading over time, this degeneration will affect many areas, such as the hippocampus whose function is linked to memory, and grey matter, involved in the processing of thoughts. On November 4th, 1904, Alois Alzheimer spoke of this ‘unusual disease of the cerebral cortex’. In reference to the post-mortem pathological examination of 55 year old Auguste Deter, he revealed that ‘in the centre of an otherwise almost normal (neuron) cell there stands out one or several fibrils due to their characteristic thickness and peculiar impregnability’; in fact studies have gone on to show an abnormal amount of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brains of affected patients. The unusual ‘thickness’ and ‘impregnability’ Alois described is therefore likely to be a reflection of the protein and fibres building up in the brain, this correlates with a lower efficiency of the transmission of messages, and the eventual destruction of these cells.

‘All in all we have to face a peculiar disease process which has been verified recently in large numbers.’

Alzheimers womanWhile promises of a brave new world, in which disease has been annihilated, never rests far from the consciousness of numerous scientists, the people need to know how to actively impact their own health. While they battle through obstacles in pursuit for the final solution, remember that all knowledge is power and the following aims to outline risk factors; the A.l.z.h.e.i.m.e.r.s of Alzheimer’s disease:

Age – is the greatest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease. After reaching 65 the risk doubles every 5 years and nearly half the people over 85 have Alzheimer’s. It is apparent that increasing age means increasingly increasing disease susceptibility and understanding the exact reasons for this could not only be of paramount importance to curing Alzheimer’s, but also numerous other age-onset diseases.

Lifestyle – it goes without saying that the decisions we make in everyday life, have a significant impact on our long term health. Stoptober has arrived, so why not take the opportunity to kick those butts out for good – see https://stoptober.smokefree.nhs.uk/ for further information. Controlling high blood pressure/ blood glucose if you have diabetes, reducing cholesterol level, maintaining a healthy weight with regular exercise and a healthy balanced diet – all of these will work towards lowering your risk for this destructive disease. Whilst the market continues to floods with ‘miracle drugs’ claiming a number of arguably beneficial effects, remember to always consult with a practitioner.

Z..umba! – This fun dancercise may be a good way to begin increasing your exercise intake, especially if the thought of a room, full of daunting equipment sends a chill down your spine.

Heart Disease – a number of lifestyle factors and conditions associated with vascular disease and stroke can raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, these include: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and smoking.

Early detection – In addition to the above suggestions, make sure you take full advantage of regular health checks as you get older. In England, Wales and N.Ireland, only 44% of people with dementia are thought to have received a formal diagnosis.

Inheritance – Genetic factors are known to play a role in the development of some forms of Alzheimer’s disease, as it can be seen to run in the family – one form is a single gene disorder. Three genes have been identified (the strongest being apolipoprotein e4 (APOE e4), it is important to note that they only account for less than 5% of cases and most genetic mechanisms for the disease in families if largely unknown. In additions the early a person experiences symptoms, the stronger the genetic influence on it’s development e.g. symptoms appearing in the 40’s or 50’s. However, having a family member suffer from the disease, does not necessarily put others at risk for various reasons – namely, they may have not had the defective gene/s passed on. If you are concerned about inheritance, consult your doctor who may be able to refer you for genetics counselling and advice.

Mild cognitive impairment – People who suffer from MCI encounter symptoms of cognitive decline and memory difficulties. These symptoms are not strong enough for a dementia diagnosis, however they are more severe than would be expected for their given age – this increases the risk of developing dementia later in life, however delaying or even preventing the progression all together is still possible.

Education – Studies have shown that a chronic engagement in mentally stimulating activities may be associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disesase – including higher levels of formal education, activities such as playing a musical instrument and maintaining a stimulating occupation. In this way, the brain may be developing more connections between neurons.

Relax – Studies have also shown an association between socially stimulating activities and a reduced risk of developing the conditions. Enjoying an active life, packed with personal hobbies and interests may also act in the favour of prevention or slower progression.

Sex – Alzheimer’s disease has a higher prevalence in women (67%) than men (44%).

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About Sumaya Anwar

Sumaya Anwar is a student of biological sciences at UCL, with a special interest in genetics. Having previous experience as a broadcast journalist, producer and researcher, she now actively works as a presenter and writer. An outgoing, sociable person, she is always interested in finding out others opinions in the pursuit of seeing an issue from every angle. This is reflected in her writing, with a versatile style that would suit a multitude of different topics. Holding a strong belief that a combination of ambition and hard work make anything possible, Sumaya perseveres to make science assessable as well as understandable to everyone.

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