By Ken Dekitani
You wake up one morning, and slowly you prop yourself up in bed as your joints, having braved the unmerciful test of time, ache and creak. Suddenly, an elderly woman walks in with a tray of your favorite breakfast foods and radiantly greets you. Naturally, you inquire, "Excuse me, I appreciate the food but may I ask who you are?" Her smile disappears. The creases in her face deepen as she replies, "Honey, I'm your wife."
Situations like this are not uncommon amongst the 5 million Americans that live with a neurological disease known as Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's is a progressive form of dementia that is characterized by such symptoms as disorientation, mood changes, confusion about events, and severe memory loss. The disease is caused by the deterioration and eventual death of nerve cells in the brain; it is believed that the damage and death of neurons is caused by the build-up of beta-amyloid protein fragment plaques between nerve cells and the accumulation of tau protein tangles inside nerve cells. Alzheimer's is fatal and it kills nearly 500,000 people each year – the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.
Most people who suffer from Alzheimer's are of age 65 or older, although 5% of people develop the disease before age 65 (known as early-onset Alzheimer's). Even though Alzheimer's typically manifests at old age, it is not a normal aspect of aging and many factors can determine if one will acquire the disease. Those who have a family member who have had the disease are more likely to develop Alzheimer's. Women also statistically have a higher chance of contracting the disease, as two thirds of Americans with Alzheimer's are women. Research has also demonstrated that the presence of certain genes such as APOE-e4 and PS-2 increase the risk of inheriting the disease.
There is currently no known cure for the disease, although there are treatments that can help delay the symptoms; for example, cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine – medications that regulate the activity of neurotransmitters – can temporarily delay the worsening of memory loss and confusion. Researchers are working fervently, however, to uncover the mechanisms of Alzheimer's so that definitive treatments and prevention strategies can be deduced. In a recent study, for example, researchers discovered that a diminishing sense of smell can be an early indicator for Alzheimer's and a smell test could be used to determine if a patient needs further testing for Alzheimer's; this development will allow patients to get early treatment for the disease. Bioengineers at the University of Washington have also recently designed a protein that can prevent amyloid proteins from folding improperly – which causes Alzheimer's in the first place – and the scientists are hopeful that their synthetic protein can one day be used as a drug that can treat the disease. These and other research projects taking place across the globe are slowly yet surely shedding light on the still largely enigmatic Alzheimer's disease so that hopefully one day we may cure it entirely.