With 5.1 million Americans aged 65 or over suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (AD), it’s easy to see why the condition has become more alarming each year for the aging population. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of age-related dementia that develops over time. The early onset symptoms include memory loss and confusion. However, the symptoms progress as noticeable personality and behavioral changes similar to dementia.
According to data from the Alzheimer’s Association, the gender gap in sufferers is immediately apparent, as 3.2 million of the just over 5 million are women. While the specific cause of Alzheimer’s has not been determined, recent research may have discovered why women are at greater risk compared to men.
There are several risk factors associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. Age and family history have always been a major consideration, but the new research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has confirmed that gender may be the key—and not just because women live longer. According to study by Dr José Viña, professor of physiology at the University of Valencia in Spain: “Mitochondria from young females are protected against amyloid-β toxicity, generate less reactive oxygen species, and release less apoptogenic signals than those from males [but this] is lost in mitochondria from old females with the hormone changes at menopause potentially being a triggering factor for increased risk.” This means that as women age, they become more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease—especially after menopause.
Dr Sevil Yasa, assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, adds: “Identifying new pharmacological treatments to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease dementia is critical given the [absence] of effective interventions to date.” Until that time, more than 10 million Americans are met with the task of caring for those that suffer from the disease.
The scientific community agrees that early diagnosis and treatment could slow the rate of cognitive deterioration and allow all sufferers to retain their independence longer. There is, however, hope stemming from a recent study, lead by researchers Jurgen Götz and Gerhard Leinenga of Australia’s University of Queensland. Researchers documented a non-invasive and innovative drug-free approach using ultrasound technology to break apart the plaques in the brain that result in memory loss and cognitive decline. “This treatment restored memory function to the same level of normal healthy mice,” Professor Götz says.
That notwithstanding, there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and treatment options are only offered to provide symptomatic relief rather than treat the underlying cause. An example would be the use of over the counter Ginkgo biloba supplementation. But, it, like many natural treatments that help alleviate some symptoms, is hardly a cure.
“Clinical trials with Ginkgo biloba and other estrogen therapies have not proved successful in treating Alzheimer’s Disease [and] as such, more experiments and clinical trials are indeed warranted to find conditions in which estrogen compounds may be useful to prevent or treat AD,” says Viña.
For day-to-day care, a structured daily routine can be beneficial. A tailored routine based on the sufferer’s strengths and interests will provide mental stimulation, which is vital for cognitive retention. It is important to engage the sufferer and avoid ignoring them or speaking to them as if they were a child. This is not only disrespectful, but it can also be very frustrating and upsetting.
Sufferers with severe symptoms can still have moments of clarity, so it is important not to make the assumption that they are constantly confused. However, you should avoid quizzing the sufferer, as forcing them to try to remember is likely to lead to anxiety and increased frustration.
For caregivers, a diagnosis of AD for a loved one can arguably be more bleak than those afflicted. According to Dr Helen Lavretsky, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior: “We know that chronic stress places caregivers at a higher risk for developing depression [and] the incidence and prevalence of clinical depression in family dementia caregivers approaches 50 percent.”
Jacquelyn Frank, associate professor of the University of Indianapolis’ Center for Aging & Community has found that “the fundamental barrier experienced by Alzheimer’s caregivers appears to be a combination of anticipatory grief and ambiguous loss, rather than hands-on care issues.” Frank went on to say: “These people need to know that feelings of grief and loss are normal, and that other caregivers face the same emotional difficulties.”
If you or someone you know is caring for an Alzheimer’s disease patient, please consider calling 1.800.272.3900 or visit Alz.org for helpful information and a support community that knows exactly how hard AD can hit.