Medicine has recognized Alzheimer’s disease for a long time; the condition was first described by German physician Alois Alzheimer in 1906.
Since then, we have learned a lot about the disease. We still have a way to go to understand it more fully and to develop new treatments, but for now, here are some important facts about Alzheimer’s.
- Alzheimer’s disease is one of many different types of dementia. “Dementia” is a term used to describe a collection of changes, including the loss of memory and other thinking skills. Alzheimer’s is the most commonly diagnosed form of dementia, but it is not the only one. Altogether, there are more than 100 forms of dementia, including vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies (abnormal aggregates of protein that develop inside nerve cells) and frontotemporal dementia.
- Proteins build up abnormally in the brain in Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease brings about changes in what a person says and does, and there are also physical changes within the brain that underpin the disease. Two types of molecules in particular build up in a way that disrupts the normal functioning of the brain. One is amyloid protein, which builds up in clumps, or “plaques,” that first appear in the outer edges of the brain. The other is tau protein, which forms tangles and first appears in the deeper parts of the brain.
- Millions of people worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease.It is hard to get an exact number, but according to Alzheimer Disease International, there are almost 50 million people with dementia worldwide. Estimates show that this number is set to nearly triple by 2050.
- An estimated 5.7 million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Also, 16.1 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.
- Not everyone who gets Alzheimer’s disease is in their senior years. The vast majority of people who receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease are over the age of 65, but a small proportion of people with Alzheimer’s are diagnosed with the condition as early as their forties or even thirties.
- A slow burn of inflammation is linked to Alzheimer’s. In recent decades, research has shown that inflammation is involved in many chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Acute inflammation is one of the ways the body deals with a potential danger or injury, so it is an important function to have for defense and repair, but a slower “burn” of inflammation has been linked to conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Diagnosis of Alzheimer's is not made through a single test.Doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s through a variety of assessments and tests. These can include memory tests, checking blood and urine, and, in some cases, brain scans.
- More women than men live with Alzheimer’s disease.Increasing age is a risk factor for dementia, and because women tend to live longer than men, it follows that more women than men will be diagnosed with dementia. In the United States, women make up almost two-thirds of those who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Your head can follow your heart in Alzheimer’s. We often think of them as being separate entities, but the brain and the heart are intricately connected. Research shows that individuals with subclinical cardiovascular disease are at higher risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Many famous people have lived with Alzheimer’s.In 1994, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan publicly shared the news that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Several other high-profile figures have lived with Alzheimer’s disease, including western and country music superstar Glen Campbell, actors Rita Hayworth and Charles Bronson, novelist Iris Murdoch, singer Perry Como and British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson.