We are young and inseparable. But, statistically speaking, one day we might lose each other.
Let me explain.
People have been breaking up with their brains for centuries. It happened to writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jonathan Swift. Composer Aaron Copland suffered this, as well as painter Norman Rockwell. Even President Ronald Reagan couldn’t stop it from happening to him.
If we live out our full life expectancy, there’s a 30% chance this will happen. The longer we live, the more likely it will be.
Statistics say that if heart attacks, cancer, lung problems, accidents, or strokes don’t kill us first, then this is the next most likely fate: me losing you.
It starts like this. Just as in all long-term relationships, bad stuff accumulates. In our case the bad is beta-amyloid. These protein fragments clump together and form plaques. Their accumulation is toxic and makes you, my brain, undependable and erratic.
There’s a second culprit too, called tau protein. Tau is supposed to be our friend, helping to keep brain cells well-fed and cared for. Misbehaving tau break apart and form tangles, obstructing nerve cell function and killing brain cells.
When many cells die, you – my brain – actually start to shrink. Your grooves and wrinkles deepen, your ventricles – the spaces in your core – widen and fill with water. You atrophy, and the intricate networks by which we communicate and function will start to fail.
As this happens, we lose connection. Memory is lost, and we start behaving not like ourselves. People may look at us and call us demented.
By now you might’ve guessed that I’m talking about the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease.
Today, Alzheimer’s affects 5.3 million people in the US. In ten more years, it will be 7.1 million people.
Caring for Alzheimer’s patients costs $226 billion dollars a year. By 2050, that cost will balloon to $1.1 trillion dollars. Understandably, some say Alzheimer’s could bankrupt the medical system.
As the fastest growing disease in America, Alzheimer’s is “the new cancer”. Obama has declared war on it, setting a deadline to find a cure by 2025.
But before the cure is found, let’s talk about what could happen.
In Alzheimer’s, brain tissue gradually deteriorates. This breakdown can’t be stopped or reversed.
The first symptoms will be absentmindedness: Forgetting important appointments, for example, or leaving loved ones behind at the store. Perhaps you won’t remember where to go after stepping out the door, or who to call after picking up the phone.
It gets harder and harder to concentrate. There’s difficulty in learning and remembering new information. Then, it becomes challenging to recall even things you’ve known for a long time, like familiar words and names.
You might suddenly have no idea where you are, and be completely lost at home or in the neighborhood. Eventually, you may not recognize friends or family members.
Increasing disorientation and confusion could put a person in a very bad mood. Many Alzheimer’s patients become agitated – or extremely apathetic. A third become clinically depressed.
In the end, as you – my brain – start to shut down, daily life activities like taking a bath, getting dressed, and having a conversation are unmanageable. Finally, essential body functions, like the ability to swallow, will go as well. It’s tragic, but life usually ends within 12 years of the first symptoms’ onset.
The chances of this happening to us depend partly on genes, believed to be the cause of 79 percent of cases.
But the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is old age. Other risks are health and lifestyle demerits, such as obesity, heart disease, smoking, singleness, depression, and low social support.
On the other hand, factors known to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s are exercise, education, keeping an active mind, and eating a Mediterranean diet composed of mostly plants and whole grains.
Currently, much of the efforts in the fight against Alzheimer’s is focused on early detection. This is because by the time obvious signs of dementia show up, it’s usually too late for treatment to be effective. In recognizing the threat early, people can make lifestyle changes to forestall the disease. For example, this can be accomplished by exercising more to keep the brain well-nourished or by engaging the mind and learning new skills, which have been proven to slow down mental decline.
Lately, scientists have developed an eye-tracking test that could check for early signs of dementia. Those being tested watch a series of videos while a computer tracks their eye movements to see whether the eyes react as they should to familiar and unfamiliar images.
Another recent invention is a smart toothbrush, which collects and analyzes DNA for markers that predict diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
Brain, there’s hope yet that we’ll find a way to help you keep up with me for as long as life lasts. Whether or not it’s in our cards to go through this, I believe that good health, mental fitness, and positivity are our best bet in surviving the end game.
“2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.” Alzheimer’s Association. Retrieved June 25, 2015.
“Alzheimer’s Disease In-Depth Report” The New York Times. Retrieved June 25. 2015.
Davison, Gerald and Neale, John. Abnormal Psychology (12th Edition). 2012.
Dzimwasha, Taku. “Toothbrushes Could Test DNA for Cancer and Alzheimer’s, Oxford Nanopore Says.” International Business Times. April 25, 2015
Jun, Ivan Seah Yu. “What is Alzheimer’s Disease?” TEDEd. Retrieved June 25, 2015.
Landhuis, Esther. “Catching Alzheimer’s before Memory Slips.” Scientific American. February 12, 2015.
Stix, Gary. “Obama’s War on Alzheimer’s: Will We Be Able to Treat the Disease by 2025?” Scientific American. January 31, 2012.