A Brief History of Alzheimer’s Disease

A Brief History of Alzheimer’s Disease

Posté le septembre 7, 2014 par Ressources Soins Aînés Québec en Alzheimer - Perte de Mémoire, Bénévolat, Blog - English, Éducation, Éducation aux Aidants, Personne Autonome

Written by Kristen Hicks

 

September is World Alzheimer’s Month

Alzheimer’s isn’t new, although the way we talk about it is. For much of human history, senility and dementia seemed a normal feature of aging. In the early 20th century, a German doctor named Alois Alzheimer was the first to pinpoint a cause, and identify the common problems as symptoms of a specific disease.

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Alzheimer’s Care Before It Had a Name

Before Alzheimer’s was understood as a disease in its own right, the care for Alzheimer’s patients was lumped in with that of other forms of illness and mental illness. Much of the responsibility for taking care of seniors that exhibited symptoms of the disease fell to family.

Starting in the 19th century, families that didn’t have the ability to provide care for relatives themselves could send them to institutions. Unfortunately many of the institutions available in the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t provide any type of specialized memory care. Seniors experiencing dementia were housed with and treated in much the same way as patients with various types of mental illnesses, orphans, and anyone else unable to be properly cared for by family members.

The Discoveries of Alois Alzheimer

Before focused Alzheimer’s care could become a reality, the disease had to become identified and at least somewhat understood. Dr. Alois Alzheimer made his most important discovery in 1906.

After the death of a patient who had exhibited memory problems and confusion, he performed an autopsy on her brain to learn more. He found plaques around some of the brain’s nerve cells and twisted bands of fiber inside of them. The disorder he’d discovered soon after came to bear his name.

Other Important Alzheimer’s Research and Discoveries

In the years since Dr. Alzheimer’s initial discovery, the growing realization of how many people are affected by the disease and increased access to improved technology to study it have combined to influence advanced and dedicated research efforts to learn more.

While there’s still a lot we haven’t figured out about Alzheimer’s disease, there have been a few notable discoveries along the way.

  • A system to better track degree of symptoms – In 1968, researchers developed a cognitive measurement scale to better determine how affected by the disease different patients are and thus how far along they are in the degenerative process.
  • Important beta-amyloid protein identified – In 1984, researchers pinpointed the beta-amyloid protein believed to be an important component in causing the plaques associated with the disease.
  • Important Tau protein identified – Just two years later, in 1986, researchers spotted a second crucial protein, this one believed to be a key component in the cause of the tangled fibers common to the disease.
  • Alzheimer’s genes identified – In 1987 and 1993, two genes were discovered that play a role in the likelihood of a person contracting Alzheimer’s. The discovery has helped doctors determine which patients have a heightened risk.
  • Alzheimer’s drugs begin to go on the market – In the 1990′s, the FDA began to approve drugs that help slow the effects of Alzheimer’s and treat the symptoms.
  • Alzheimer’s vaccine works for mice – Nothing comparable has been found for humans yet, but in 1999 researchers determined a way to protect mice from developing the disease.

Alzheimer’s Today

The number of people affected by Alzheimer’s continues to grow at a rapid rate. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of patients in the United States is expected to grow by 44% in the next decade. Alzheimer’s is already the 6th-leading cause of death in the United States.

While that paints a troubling picture of the future, the upside to the growth of the disease is that it’s accompanied by a growth in awareness and attempts to understand it. We don’t know yet what causes Alzheimer’s or how to cure it, but research continues in earnest. Patients and their families have a number of Alzheimer’s care options to choose from, including in-home care, assisted living and residential care options.

Living with Alzheimer’s is always difficult and often tragic, but the options available to seniors with the disease today far surpass those common at any other point in history. People living with Alzheimer’s can continue to live fulfilling and comfortable lives even as the disease progresses.


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