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Published on: December 13, 2011
by Beth Gilbert for Everyday Health:
Many people think of Alzheimer’s disease as a condition associated with memory loss and other cognitive decline. However, it’s considerably more complicated and serious than that. In fact, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and, despite research efforts, it’s also among the top 10 diseases in the nation that cannot be prevented, reversed, or cured.
Death rates for many major diseases — including stroke, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and heart disease — actually declined between 2000 and 2008. But deaths from Alzheimer’s disease increased 66 percent during that period.
When Forgetfulness Turns Fatal
“Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease, which is not reversible,” says Muralidhar Reddy Moola, PhD, of the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla. “As the disease progresses, an individual loses his memory as well as mental and physical function — it is this function loss that leads ultimately to death. Once the disease starts, we are able to slow the progression with currently available medications — but we can’t stop it or reverse it.”
Though the disease process itself is not considered deadly, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and, ultimately, the consequences of the disease are what make it lethal.
“Alzheimer’s disease does not cause imminent death, in the sense that most patients live for more than five years and some for 10 to 15 years from diagnosis if they are otherwise healthy,” says Gil Rabinovici, MD, of the University of California in San Francisco. “In the end stages, however, Alzheimer’s impacts balance, walking, and swallowing. The cause of death is usually related to complications of immobility such as falls, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, pressure sores, or aspiration.”
In a study by researcher Robert S. Wilson, PhD, and his colleagues at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, higher levels of cognitive function were associated with increased survival among a population of more than 10,000 older adults. This suggests that the loss of cognitive function and dementia in Alzheimer’s disease plays a role in mortality: The faster the rate of cognitive decline, the quicker the onset of death from complications of the disease.
Steps for Fighting Alzheimer’s
Although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and available Alzheimer’s treatments can only slow its progression, drugs, behavioral therapy, and lifestyle modifications may help with both cognitive and behavioral symptoms such as memory loss, dementia, changes in behavior, and sleep disturbances.
“Equally important are maintaining cognitive activity, staying social, and engaging in regular physical exercise,” Dr. Rabinovici stresses. “All of these have benefits for the brain, and exercise in particular may delay physical symptoms and immobility.”
Continuing activities that you find meaningful and enjoyable is also important, adds Myron Weiner, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “Many times, however, people will need the support and participation of friends and family to keep them involved.”
That need for assistance, especially as a person’s condition worsens, can make fighting the symptoms of Alzheimer’s difficult. “Even early in the disease, patients require some assistance in managing their affairs, and as the disease progresses, they require increasing help with basic self-care,” Rabinovici says. “The disease has a tremendous impact on quality of life for patients and families, and dramatic economic consequences for society.”
Ongoing research for new Alzheimer’s treatments holds hope — new drugs in clinical trials may actually stop Alzheimer’s progression. In the meantime, Dr. Weiner suggests that controlling high blood pressure and diabetes and maintaining overall good health with moderate physical and mental activity, as well as social engagement, may help with addressing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, including dementia and loss of physical functioning.
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