Media Contact: Keith.O’Connor@baystatehealth.org, 413-794-7656
SPRINGFIELD, August 26, 2013 – Celebrities such as President Ronald Reagan, country singer Glenn Campbell, coach Pat Summit of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team, and illustrator Norman Rockwell all share something in common.
All are either battling a disease or have already succumbed to a behavioral disorder which has been around for centuries, but which only became a part of the public lexicon in the last quarter of the 20th century and is known today as Alzheimer’s disease.
September is World Alzheimer’s Month bringing attention to the fact it is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S., where some five million people are living with the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia for which there is no cure. It is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest of everyday tasks.
“Although Alzheimer’s disease is a relatively new term in the medical field, dementia has been around throughout human history dating back as far as the 4th century BC when the famous Greek physician Hippocrates described it in his writings,” said Dr. Benjamin Liptzin, chair, Department of Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center.
However, Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a psychiatrist who over 100 years ago in 1906 described a patient in her 50s who exhibited symptoms of memory loss, language problems and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many “abnormal clumps” doctors now refer to as amyloid plaques and “tangled bundles of fibers,” now called neurofibrillary tangles, which cause
brain cells to die.
“The promise of the future was that we would have a drug by now that would stop the progression, reverse, or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease from occurring. But none of the trial drugs over the past years have proven successful, and the federal
government is continuing its research efforts with some very large studies looking at the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Liptzin.
“One of those current studies involves looking at a family from Colombia, South America, with a very high genetic incidence of Alzheimer’s disease with family members getting it early in life. Researchers are using available drugs to see if they can prevent pre-symptomatic people from progressing to full-blown Alzheimer’s,” he added.
Age, family history, and genetics all play an important part in the risk to develop Alzheimer’s disease in your lifetime.
“We know that genetics is a risk factor and some families have a very high prevalence of Alzheimer’s. So, it’s important that you share this information with your primary care physician who will ask you about your family history and any signs of forgetfulness. Scientists have also identified several gene mutations, such as APOE 4, which increases the risk that a person will develop the disease. We also know that Alzheimer’s increases with age, and that by the age of 95 some 50 percent of the population will have some form of dementia. Only five percent of the population at age 65 will have Alzheimer’s or some dementia. It is rare before the age of 65, but we do see cases involving people in their 40s to early 50s, and those are tragic when someone is still in the prime of their life,” said Dr. Liptzin.
The Baystate Medical Center psychiatrist also noted that it’s normal to have some lapses in memory as you grow older, and some who do, often fear it’s a sign of Alzheimer’s. However, true symptoms include the following as listed by the National Institute on Aging: being unable to remember things, asking the same question over and over, getting lost in familiar places, unable to follow directions, disorientation about time, people and places, as well as neglecting personal safety, nutrition and hygiene.
While there is currently no medication to prevent or stop the disease, there are several prescription drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Medications referred to as cholinesterase inhibitors may help delay or prevent symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time for those with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. For those with moderate to severe disease
symptoms, a medication known as memantine may help patients maintain such daily
functions as going to the bathroom independently, than they would without the medication.
For more information on Baystate Medical Center and its Memory Disorders Program, visit baystatehealth.org.bmc.