Health Panel Updates Alzheimer's Disease Information

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Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia (general mental deterioration) in the United States today. AD occurs primarily, though not exclusively, in the elderly. Although there currently is no established way to prevent or cure AD, a new report by the American Council on Science and Health(ACSH), Alzheimer's Disease: A Status Report For 2002, points out that the current spate of research into new diagnostic methods and pharmaceutical treatment holds hope for the future.

The number of new cases of Alzheimer's disease doubles in each decade of life after age 65; thus, as the American population ages, we can expect to see AD more frequently. AD is a progressive disease: initially patients may exhibit only slight loss of memory, but eventually they will become unable to care for themselves. AD does not necessarily progress steadily a patient's condition may deterioriate to some extent, then remain stable for a year or longer.

Brains of AD victims undergo many changes, some of which may also be caused by other diseases. For example, neuritic plaques, which are accumulations of proteins outside nerve cells, are seen only in AD-affected brains. Neurofibrillary tangles, twisted protein fibers inside nerve cells, may also be seen in other brain diseases.

At this time, a definitive diagnosis of AD can only be made after death. AD is currently diagnosed by neuropsychological testing; brain imaging techniques such as PET scans are being actively investigated so that diagnoses can be made with more certainty and earlier in the course of the disease process. Since current treatments may slow the progression of AD, earlier diagnosis could provide more years of independent, productive life for AD victims. The best practical advice available at this time is to encourage diagnosis and appropriate treatment as early as possible.

A number of theories exist about what characteristics or factors dispose an individual to develop AD. Known risk factors include increasing age and certain genes. Other possible factors are discussed in the report.

Alzheimer's Disease: A Status Report For 2002
discusses the three main modes of treatment for AD: behavioral modification, replenishment of deficient neurotransmitters, and prevention of nerve cell damage. A number of pharmaceutical agents are under intensive investigation to determine their utility for treating AD.

Alzheimer's Disease: A Status Report For 2002
2002 was written by Dr. Agnes Heinz and is based on a review of the scientific literature by Dr. John Blass, Director of the Dementia Research Service, Burke Medical Research Institute.