Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia1 among older people. Dementia is a brain disorder that severely affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease2 . Unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented, the number of people with it will increase significantly if current population trends continue. That’s because the risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age and the U.S. population is aging.
Many Americans dismiss the warning signs of Alzheimer’s, believing that these symptoms are a normal part of aging. This is of even greater concern for African-Americans, who are two times more likely3 to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s disease than whites and less likely to have a diagnosis of their condition, resulting in less time for treatment and planning.
AD begins slowly. It first involves the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. People with AD may have trouble remembering things that happened recently or names of people they know. A related problem, mild cognitive impairment4 (MCI), causes more memory problems than normal for people of the same age. Many, but not all, people with MCI will develop AD.
What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
A National Institute on Aging2 article states that It seems likely that damage to the brain starts a decade or more before memory and other cognitive problems become evident. During this preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s disease, people seem to be symptom-free, but toxic changes are taking place in the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins form amyloid plaques and tau tangles throughout the brain, and once-healthy neurons (cells within the nervous system that transmit information to other nerve cells, muscle, or gland cells) stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and die.
The damage initially appears to take place in the hippocampus, the part of the brain essential in forming memories. As more neurons die, additional areas of the brain are affected. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.
AD usually begins after age 60. The risk goes up as you get older. Your risk is also higher if a family member has had the disease.
No treatment can stop the disease. However, some drugs may help keep symptoms from getting worse for a limited time.
Do you wonder if Alzheimer’s disease runs in your family? If a grandparent, parent, aunt, or uncle has had Alzheimer’s, will you have it, too?
Understanding Alzheimer’s Genes: Know Your Family History
NIH’s new easy-to-read booklet, Understanding Alzheimer’s Genes: Know Your Family History5 , can help you answer these and other questions. The publication describes what genes are, how they relate to Alzheimer’s disease, and what it means if you have a family history of the disease.
Genes contain information passed down from your parents. They affect many aspects of your health, including your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. Your chance of getting the disease may be higher if you have certain variant genes. However, having a parent with Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t always mean that you’ll develop it.
This 20-page booklet has tips for creating a family health history and joining a clinical trial or research registry. It also provides steps you can take if you’re at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
This booklet will help you learn about Alzheimer’s disease:
- what it is
- signs of the disease
- when it is important to see your doctor
- research studies
You can call 1-800-438-4380 to learn more or to order a free print copy.
Drug Medications6 used to Treat Alzheimer’s Disease
Treatment for Mild to Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms
(It is important to understand that none of these medications stops the disease itself.)
Medications called cholinesterase inhibitors7 are prescribed for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. These drugs may help delay or prevent symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time and may help control some behavioral symptoms. The medications include: Razadyne® (galantamine), Exelon®(rivastigmine), and Aricept® (donepezil).
Scientists do not yet fully understand how cholinesterase inhibitors work to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but research indicates that they prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a brain chemical believed to be important for memory and thinking. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the brain produces less and less acetylcholine; therefore, cholinesterase inhibitors may eventually lose their effect.
Treatment for Moderate to Severe Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms
A medication known as Namenda8 ® (memantine), an N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist, is prescribed to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. This drug’s main effect is to delay progression of some of the symptoms of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. It may allow patients to maintain certain daily functions a little longer than they would without the medication. For example, Namenda® may help a patient in the later stages of the disease maintain his or her ability to use the bathroom independently for several more months, a benefit for both patients and caregivers.
The FDA has also approved Aricept® and Namzaric®, a combination of Namenda®8 and donepezil, for the treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease.
Namenda® is believed to work by regulating glutamate, an important brain chemical. When produced in excessive amounts, glutamate may lead to brain cell death. Because NMDA antagonists work very differently from cholinesterase inhibitors, the two types of drugs can be prescribed in combination.
Resources for Alzheimer’s Disease
Contact the following groups to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease.
- Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center (1-800-438-4380)
- Alzheimer’s Association (1-800-272-3900)
- Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (1-866-232-8484)
- Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116)
Alzheimer’s Disease is often overlooked in the Black community. That’s a grave mistake which can be corrected with better education about this disease. Please take advantage of the resources listed above for Alzheimer’s Disease.