Who comes to mind when you picture a person suffering from Alzheimer ’s disease? Is it the 76 year old man that you heard about on the news who had wandered off from home in the middle of the night and has been missing for several hours? Is it the 83 year old grandmother who is now living in a long-term care facility, unable to perform even the simplest of tasks on her own? How about the 51 year old woman who after years of being a top sales consultant at a nationally known bank, finds her self at the bottom of the pack due to missing appointments and fumbling through sales pitches? The truth is, all of these people are the face of Alzheimer ’s disease. The first two cases were “made – up” but are easily believable because that is what we hear about and typically expect when we hear or see the words “Alzheimer’s Disease.” The third case is a true story. Patty Smith, of Washington,D.C.had to retire early from a very successful career in the banking industry at the age of 51 following her diagnosis of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease.
To discuss Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, first we need a basic understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). AD is a type of dementia that affects one’s memory, thinking and behavior. While there are many types of dementia, AD accounts for the bulk of these cases. While there are many symptoms of AD, perhaps the most common is difficulty in remembering new information. This is because changes in the brain caused by the AD typically begin in the part of our brain that is responsible for learning. As the AD progresses, it affects more areas of the brain and other symptoms may emerge. Some of these symptoms include disorientation to time or place, mood changes, visual and spatial concept difficulties, difficulties in planning, problem solving or completing familiar activities, difficulty with word finding, social withdrawal, unfounded suspicions and decrease in judgment. As the disease progresses further symptoms previously mention become worse and difficulty in self – care, speaking, swallowing and walking may be seen. Typically the earliest signs are not noticed by the person exhibiting the signs. More often a family member or close friend is the first to notice the symptoms.
Although Alzheimer’s Disease is a highly researched disease, scientists still do not fully understand what causes the disease; however the two prime suspects in the nerve damaging disease are plaques (deposits of protein that build up between the nerve cells) and tangles (twisted proteins that build up inside the nerve cells.) It is believed that the plaques and tangles block the communication between the nerve cells that is vital for the nerve cell’s survival. These proteins do occur within normal aging; however, they tend to occur at a faster rate and in a very predictable pattern in those with AD.
As mentioned above, AD accounts for the majority of dementias, estimated to be between 50 – 80% of all dementias. Of those suffering from Alzheimer ’s disease, about 5% of those will develop the disease before the age of 65. That’s approximately 200,000 people in the United States.