Alzheimer's disease is one of the top 10 diseases Americans die from each year, but it is the only one on that list that is expanding as the other causes of death are declining. Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative brain disease and the most common form of dementia.
"Alzheimer's is becoming a more common cause of death as the populations of the United States and other countries age," notes the Alzheimer's Association. "While other major causes of death continue to experience significant declines, those from Alzheimer's continue to rise."
One reason for this difference is that the other leading fatal illnesses are preventable, such as stroke and heart disease, but Alzheimer's cannot be prevented with lifestyle changes. According to the Alzheimer's Association, preliminary data from between 2000 and 2008 showed that deaths attributed to Alzheimer's increased 66 percent, while those attributed to the No. 1 cause of death, heart disease, decreased by 13 percent.
Such statistics make the latest Alzheimer's research so vital for those who suspect they may get the disease, those already suffering from it and their friends and family, who may provide some level of in-home caregiver support during the long course of the disease.
Some of the biggest news about Alzheimer's currently is the importance of early detection.
"Biological changes associated with Alzheimer's disease are thought to begin 10 to 15 or perhaps 20 years before an individual displays symptoms," states Dr. Heather Snyder, senior associate director of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association. "But there is no single generally accepted way to identify the disease in its earliest stages -- before symptoms are evident. At the same time, Alzheimer's therapies are in development that may be able to slow or stop the progression of the disease."
There are efforts underway to update the diagnostic criteria in a variety of ways, including biomarker measures. This spring, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Alzheimer's Association published new diagnostic criteria guidelines for Alzheimer's disease in Alzheimer's and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association.
You might ask: If the disease cannot currently be stopped or cured, what difference does early detection make?
"The benefits of early detection are many," says Beth Kallmyer, senior director of constituent services at the Alzheimer's Association. "People who are diagnosed early can participate in the planning of their future -- they can talk to their families about advanced directives, how they want to have their finances handled, what they want to have happen when they can't drive anymore."
Not only does this allow the person with Alzheimer's disease to feel empowered, Kallmyer says, but it's a huge relief to their caregivers and loved ones who otherewise may have to make decisions under a great deal of stress later, when the disease is in its advanced stages.
We recently posted an article on Homewatch Caregivers that pulls from the Alzheimer's Association's own 10 Signs of Alzheimer's list. There is a distinct difference between the signs of normal aging and early Alzheimer's disease. For example, someone may answer the phone and simultaneously put down their keys, then not be able to find them a few minutes later. A normal aging brain will retrace their steps and remember the moment that they answered the phone, whereas an individual with Alzheimer's disease will not remember the phone call or be able to retrace their steps.
Kallmyer points out that the role of an in-home caregiver to someone with Alzheimer's is unique in the length of the disease and increased need. "It starts with helping with memory aides and then ends when the person with Alzheimer's can do nothing for themselves," she says.
Another benefit to early detection of Alzheimer's disease is that the individual can decide if they want to be part of future Alzheimer's research by signing up to participate in clinical trials. "When somebody has a fatal illness, clinical trials can be a great way for them to feel like they are making a change," Kallmyer says. "They might feel like they are making a difference for their kids and grandkids."
Ultimately, with hopes that there will be treatments for Alzheimer's disease, the time to intervene will be in the earliest stages of the brain disease. "This approach envisions what is now common practice in heart disease," says Dr. Snyder. "Where early signs of risk -- for example, in genetic markers or in blood cholesterol and/or blood pressure levels -- can be treated to reduce the chances of heart attack or stroke later on."
Dr. Snyder said there is a lot more research to be done on Alzheimer's disease. "There are many unanswered questions in Alzheimer's disease," she says. "We do not yet know the causes of the disease, we do not know risk factors associated with Alzheimer's disease."