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Alzheimer's and the Wave of Confused Old Folks
Of the effects of aging on the body, severe memory loss, loss of reasoning abilities and loss of awareness are some of most tragic outcomes both to the victims and to those who know them. This loss of mental abilities, called dementia, is caused by Alzheimer's Disease in 50 to 70% of those with dementia. People who develop the condition eventually degrade to the point where they lose their ability to function on their own and require care at all hours.

Though identified as an abnormal condition related to aging more than 100 years ago, the formal recognition of Alzheimer's as a disease did not occur until the 1960's and not until the 1990's was a link made between the disease and genetics. Since the 1990's however, research into Alzheimer's has grown considerably with results having led to the development of a number of drugs that reduce the symptoms and slow the rate of mental decline. However, to date, none of the drugs thus far developed has been confirmed to halt the progression of the disease and restore mental function.

With any ongoing research into a disease, scientists find many facts that end up being passed on to the public though these facts only offer a peek at how the disease operates. For example, those with high cholesterol have a higher risk of developing the disease than those with normal cholesterol levels. However, the use of drugs that lower cholesterol has not conclusively been shown to reduce the risk of developing the disease as different studies have found different results. Daily doses of caffeine from coffee, however, seem to reduce the risks of developing Alzheimer's caused by high cholesterol levels.

Other findings of interest are that eating certain regular weekly levels of fruits and vegetables cuts the risk of Alzheimer's development by 76%. Patients who use the off-the-shelf painkiller and inflammation-fighting drug ibuprofen for long periods have 40% less chance of developing the disease. Increased insulin levels in the brain seem to protect against damage caused by the disease. Those with bigger brains are less likely to develop the disease despite having brains that, under the microscope, look similar to those with Alzheimer's. Lastly, poor oral hygiene can contribute to development of Alzheimer's. While all interesting facts, none of these has directly described what is happening in the brains of those with the disease.

However, recently scientists have made some more significant discoveries beyond what has been known since Dr. Alois Alzheimer described as "plaques and tangles" in the brains of those who had died of Alzheimer's. The problem, for the longest time, had been to understand whether or not the tangles of deposited proteins in the brains of those with Alzheimer's were causing the symptoms or were a side effect. The question arises because some people with the same protein deposits don't have the symptoms of the disease and because both drugs and vaccines that prevent the build up of the proteins in the brain only slowed progression of the disease instead of halting or reversing it.

The latest research discoveries, however, point more clearly to what is happening. It seems that the proteins deposited as a part of the disease are creating damaging chemicals, called free radicals, and being broken down in ways that affects the power plant of each nerve cell in the brain. When the cell power plant, or mitochondria, is too damaged, it produces toxic chemicals that poison the nerve cell and at the same time generates too little energy to keep the cell alive. The result is that the nerve cell dies.

This finding of a relation between Alzheimer's disease and the cell power plant might explain why a diet high in fruits and vegetables reduces Alzheimer's risk. All the antioxidants in these foods are known to reduce the free radicals in the body so they may offer enough protection to the mitochondria to keep it running properly.

Also of importance with this latest information is knowing that while the drugs that stop the deposit of the proteins in the brain cell are important for slowing or stopping damage, they do not repair the damage already done. To repair damage or further slow the disease, new options will need to be explored.

While this is not immediately optimistic news for those with Alzheimer's, understanding prevention options and the limits of current drugs is very important to ensure research dollars are spent most efficiently and that effort is directed in the most beneficial direction. Given that 1 in 8 people over 65 will develop Alzheimer's and that the population over 65 is the fastest growing, having answers sooner than later will benefit not just those who develop Alzheimer's but also those who would have to care for them.

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After working in a retirement residence for several years, I am convinced that there will be a crisis of seniors with Alzheimer's. With the New York Times saying people are less confidant in their health, obesity increasing and people able to live longer, there will be plenty of work looking after the elderly.

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