According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease has become a public health crisis in the U.S.
For National Alzheimer's Awareness Month, WUWF is taking a closer look at the prevalence of the disease and the toll it takes on the brain of an individual who's been diagnosed with it.
“We have about 5 million people (estimated 5.5 million) in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s disease and with our ever-aging population expect the number to grow over the coming decades ahead,” said Guttmann. “And, you know Alzheimer’s is age related so the older the population gets, the higher the probability of having Alzheimer’s disease.”
Given that one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population is 65 and older, the number of people with Alzheimer’s is expected to nearly triple to 16 million by 2050.
Here are some other statistics. Someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds and the disease has become the country’s sixth leading cause of death; higher than Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer combined.
Dr. Guttmann has spent much of his career researching Alzheimer’s, which is one of many forms of dementia, characterized by changes in cognition.
“We think about that with Alzheimer’s disease is related to memory. But, it also has to do with behavior and decision-making, language and vision,” Guttmann said, adding that dementia happens for a number of reasons, including infection and metabolic disorder. “Alzheimer’s is one type, and it is the most common of type of irreversible dementia in older adults. It accounts for about two-thirds of dementia in that population.”
Younger people can also get the disease. Guttmann says early-onset Alzheimer’s generally is genetic and typically affects individuals in their 40’s and 50’s.
“[early onset] has a similar progression as late on-set Alzheimer’s disease, the more common type. About 95 percent of all Alzheimer’s is the late onset, or sporadic form,” said Guttman.
Dr. Guttman explains there’s a balance in that people with early-onset generally are younger and in better health than the individuals with late onset.
“They live probably about as long on average, but a lot of that is because overall they’re healthier. They don’t have the co-morbidities that someone who’s 70 or 75 would have.”
No matter the age, Dr. Guttman says when a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the first area of the brain that’s impacted is called the hippocampus, which is very important to short term memory.
He explains that as people are walking around every day, they are seeing cars, moving around, having conversations and constantly processing information.
“Our hippocampus is helping process that information and facilitating its storage when it’s important enough, I guess, or impactful enough for our long-term memory. So, what happens with Alzheimer’s is the hippocampus begins to deteriorate and because of that people have a problem remembering what just occurred,” Guttmann said, noting that the loss of memory manifests itself in various ways including repetitive statements and wondering.
“I wish I could record the brain activity in my head in a video and create something that would enable people to see,” said Brian LeBlanc.
The long-time Pensacola resident exhibited many of the early signs of Alzheimer’s (confusion with time or place, difficulty completing familiar tasks, and misplacing things) before his own diagnosis in 2014 at the age of 54.
LeBlanc has been sharing his story with WUWF, in the past three years becoming a national public speaker and advocate, and board member of Dementia Alliance International. In a recent conversation, he attempted to paint for us a picture of what it is like to suffer with Alzheimer’s on a day-to-day basis.
You can follow keep up with Brian by reading his blog, Alzheimer's: The Journey.
“When I do my presentation, I talk about a road. It’s a beautiful road with beautiful trees and the sky is blue. It’s just a beautiful day,” described LeBlanc. “And, I say imagine driving down this road and I say it’s such a beautiful day. But, then all of a sudden, I go to the next slide. It’s sort of the same road, but it’s covered in dense fog. I say, “Now what do you do?”
He continues that with the fog, you have to slow down to a snail’s pace, “Because you don’t know where you’re going. You can’t see anything, and you have to be very cautious.”
LeBlanc says the fog bank may last a minute, or ten minutes. Then he describes going back to the previous slide depicting the clear, beautiful day.
“I said, then you go on your merry way,” said LeBlanc as he immediately asks us to image the fog coming back and going back-and-forth like that throughout the day. “That’s what my brain does, some days not so many, some days a lot….you don’t know what you’re [going to] have when you wake up every morning.”
Dr. Guttmann says Brian’s description is a visualization of the idea of consciousness and the speed of life going on around him and being able to process that. Consider what happens with computers.
“There are days when you’re on your computer and it seems to be operating perfectly smoothly; you know, it’s processing your document just fine or you’re on the internet looking for something and then all of a sudden, you’ve got the wheel spinning there,” said Guttman. “And it’s processing and you’re getting agitated and aggravated and it’s just taking a long time to process information. But, then somehow spontaneously it seems to resolve itself and now everything is working fine again.”
As described by LeBlanc, sometimes that processing pause may last for seconds or minutes and it can happen multiple times throughout the day.
So, the effects of Alzheimer’s disease are unpredictable and to date there’s no cure. But, there is plenty of Alzheimer’s research, which WUWF will address what’s happening on that front in a future report.