If like me you won’t see 70 years again you’ll be well and truly in the high risk age group likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. And this is something you can’t easily forget because Alzheimer’s is the number one topic of our day with constant coverage in the newspapers, on TV and the radio and even parliamentary debates.
Alzheimer’s Disease has become the number one medical issue around the developing world, and now has a higher profile than other health risks such as cancer and heart diseases. It is estimated that 10% of people over the age of 60 will become sufferers. If you are over 85 years old you have a 50% possibility of contracting some form of the disease – if the experts are right.
But is it a disease? The simple fact is that no-one knows, and even fewer are prepared to admit it. As Alzheimer’s is something which could well be of more than passing interest for me, I decided to find out a bit more about it.
It all started with a German physician called Alois Alzheimer, a neurologist who conducted research into the pathology of the nervous system, and in particular of the brain, in the early years of the 20th century. Much of his work derived from treating a 51 year old patient, Auguste Deter, who suffered from a number of unusual behavioural symptoms, including short-term memory loss.
Alzheimer made a deal with her husband whereby her treatment costs would be defrayed, in exchange for which he would take ownership of her medical records and her brain when she died. Mrs Deter passed away at the early age of 56, and Alzheimer and a colleague examined cross sections of her brain by microscope. His work identified physical anomalies in the brain, which were later to be known as Alzheimer’s Disease. By a lucky twist of fate his original slides were rediscovered in 1998, and his findings were confirmed.
However medical scientists are still unable to determine conclusively whether these anomalies were the cause or the effect of Frau Deter’s condition. There is a distinct possibility that the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and the specific changes identified in Mrs Deter’s brain may be only marginally related. This is unfortunate because large amounts of cash are being expended in the search for drugs that might have an effect on the physical changes that Alzheimer identified, so far without any positive result.
Since the 1990’s a number of studies have been under way in the USA to try to shed further light on the physical causes or effects of this condition. Unusually these studies have focused in particular on groups of Roman Catholic nuns. These groups were selected because members will have followed almost identical lifestyles – little or no use of alcohol or drugs, similar lifestyle and dietary histories – thereby minimising any external factors which could distort the results of the studies. Another contributory factor could have been that the nuns appear to have been persuaded with relative ease to make their brains available for dissection when they had no further use for them.
One such nun who had participated in the studies passed away at the ripe old age of 101, and had enjoyed full use of her mental faculties right up to the time of her death. However, when her brain was examined it was found to be riddled with exactly the anomalies identified by Dr Alzheimer as the sure signs of advanced stages of the condition. Other nuns have also been found to have all the expected physical signs of Alzheimer’s but with none of the mental symptoms.
The study has also found a level of correlation between the nuns’ applied intelligence in their early twenties when they joined the order and their eventual susceptibility to Alzheimer’s Disease. In essence you can protect your brain from the onset of Alzheimer’s by exercising your brain from an early age, and keeping it working hard until the rest of your body wears out. This is a relevant case history for anyone interested in the condition, and is described objectively here.
There is some good news – fewer people in Western Europe are now contracting Alzheimer’s, even at a later stage of their lives. As there are no drugs on the market specifically formulated to slow its development, the assumption is that the decline in Alzheimer’s is the result of healthier lifestyles.
So, the question remains – is Alzheimer’s really a disease?
Fewer wars in Western Europe since 1945, fewer fatal road traffic incidents and industrial deaths not to mention better health care and diet have all contributed to an increase in survival rates in infancy and throughout life. As a consequence more people are reaching an age where the body just naturally wears out. Our immune systems weaken and become less able to protect our DNA from attack. The brain is an organ like any other and in the later stages of life will be susceptible to deterioration, just like everything else. So, I have now formulated my own recipe to combat Alzheimer’s or at least delay its inception. I gave up smoking a long time ago and will not be tempted to start again. As much exercise as possible for brain as well as body, avoid drinking too much and putting on weight, eat healthy food.
Or, as the Roman poet Juvenal put it, 2,000 years ago, “Mens sana in corpore sano”, so nothing new in that.
However, if you think you may be experiencing this condition, or know someone who is showing possible symptoms, Dementiauk.org has a a lot of useful information. A word of warning, however, our knowledge of Alzheimer’s Disease is still very limited.