Imagine waking up one morning and you cannot remember where you are or your own childs name. This could be a direct sign that you or a family member has Alzheimers disease. Alzheimers disease is a form of dementia, which means that it affects certain functions of the brain such as memory, logic, and everyday bodily functions. This disease was first described by a doctor named Alois Alzheimer in 1906. He discovered unusual growths of fibers in the brains of woman that had died from an unusual mental illness (National Institute, 1995). Many people do not realize how severe this disease really is.
These people also do not realize how much of a risk there is of developing the disease. Four million people in the United States today are afflicted with Alzheimers disease. It is estimated that about 22 million people around the world currently have this disease (St. George-Hyslop, 2000). Another very interesting fact about Alzheimers is that the changes in the brain take place 20 to 40 years before the patient shows any symptoms. About ten percent of Americans have this disease by the age of 65, and about 50 percent of Americans have the disease by the age of 85.
People can live well into their 90s, and they still retain most of their memories and control of their bodies (Kahn, 1998). This disease is a disease that everyone in the United States should be concerned about. Scientists believe that they know what causes this disease to occur. It is caused by proteins in the brain that go terribly wrong. These proteins form clusters inside the brain, and they produce a toxin that affects nerve cells. These nerve cells are then lost, and this affects certain parts of the brain that control certain functions. This directly affects two parts of the brain, the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex.
These two parts of the brain control memory, reasoning, language, and other bodily functions (St. George-Hyslop, 2000). Alzheimers disease has a major effect on not only the patients life, but on the lives of the patients family as well. This disease takes a very slow path in its development. It may start as just some short-term memory loss. This means that a person with Alzheimers may forget little things, like what he or she ate for dinner last night or why they went to the refrigerator. These symptoms can be overlooked as just a part of the aging process.
As the disease progresses, however, the symptoms get much worse. Sometimes people with Alzheimers forget where they are, and they can even forget what they are doing half way through a simple task, like making toast (National Institute, 1995). A few years ago, I went to Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmothers house. My whole family knew that my great aunt had Alzheimers, but no one knew how bad it had gotten. My aunt and I always had great conversations about life, but when I went to say hello to her, she did not even know my name. She could hardly remember anybodys name, and we were all her closest family.
What made things look even worse was half way through dinner she remembered my name, only to say, Noah can you pass the mashed potatoes? About two minutes later, she had once again forgotten my name. Believe it or not this disease gets even worse. People with Alzheimers can eventually start forgetting to do their everyday tasks such as brushing their teeth, combing their hair, and a person can even forget when to go to the bathroom. After a while, a person may need 24 hour a day care. Many times a spouse or an offspring will take the job of a patients caretaker. The job of the caregiver is a very tolling one.
This person needs to totally devote him of her self to the job. Shenk (2001 p. 15) interviewed a caregiver, who stated, She needs to be watched every second, as she wants to go home and has attempted to walk there many times. Of course home is always in a different place, depending on where her memory of her life happens to be. Shenk (2001) also points out that patients often become very angry and blame the majority of the anger on their caregiver. For example, when my cousin was taking care of my aunt, she would often get very mad at him like a child would get mad at his parents because they would not let the child buy a piece of candy.
My aunt would become furious, and sometime she would even try to hit him. This point was illustrated by Shenk (2001) in the following passage: All her anger is focused on me; she calls me fat and no good. She says I dont even care if she lives or dies. She accuses me of stealing her things, and accuses my children, who dont smoke of taking her cigarettes. When she gets into repetitive complaining about me, Ive often felt that I would love to place her somewhere else, anywhere but hereif I could find someone who would take good care of her. (p. 16)
As the Alzheimers Fact Sheet (1995) points out, patients will eventually begin to wander away from home. Several times the police have been enlisted to help track her down. Once she was found with mud up to her knees. She had tried to walk across a swamp (Shenk, 2001, p. 16). This happened only when the caregiver took her eyes off of her mother for a couple of seconds. The caregiver cannot be blamed for this, but it shows how much responsibility the caregiver really has. One day my cousin fell asleep while my aunt was taking a nap. A couple of hours later he awoke to the phone ringing.
The call was from a supermarket about ten miles away. They said that my aunt had gone shopping, but she did not have any money to pay for what she wanted. My cousin had taken my aunt shopping the previous day. In my aunts case, and in most other cases, this disease will kill the patient. The brain will lose the ability to command certain organs in the body. In my aunts case, her liver stopped functioning. She died about two days later. Every patient will eventually meet a similar doom. The worst part is that nothing can be done about this. There is no way to stop the disease from taking its path.
Alzheimers will eventually lead to death, if something else does not happen along the way. There are no ways to prevent the disease, and there has yet to be a cure found for the disease. The most difficult part of this disease is that a person does not need to have the disease to suffer from it. The caregivers are doomed to watch his or her family slowly turn back into a toddler like state. The caregivers are also faced with being reeducated. Every few months, the caregiver must learn to deal with the new changes that have occurred in the patients disease.
Eventually, the caregiver is responsible for all of the following: makeshift remedies, negotiating impossible requests and insults, financial responsibilities, shopping and cooking, dressing, and bathing. This can cost a caregiver tens of thousands of dollars a year (Shenk, 2001). There are currently two drugs to aid in the treatment of Alzheimers disease. These drugs are only effective during the first couple years of the disease. The drugs are called Cognex and Aricept. Both of these drugs work by increasing a chemical in the brain that works with memory. They do not cure the disease, but they do produce some improvement in patients.
In Kahns story (1998) a daughter of a patient was very pleased with Aricept, the reversal of her condition was remarkable. For over a year, I kind of got my mom back (p,18). This disease is obviously a horrible one. It can rip a family apart, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Hopefully, one day a cure will be found, but in the mean time, Alzheimers disease has total control over a person who is afflicted with it. It also has control over the family of the person afflicted with it. Almost everyone in this country has some sort of tie to this disease, and this is why more research should be done in hopes of finding a cure.