It is easy to joke about Alzheimer’s, unless you’re one of the over five million people who suffer from it, or one of the tens of millions of people whose lives have been devastated by its impact on a beloved friend or relative. Then those cute one-liners about memory loss and vagueness are no longer cute.
At one time, it was thought that memory loss and dementia were inevitably part of aging, but we know now that is not so. Alzheimer’s is a specific disease that is degenerative and progressive. Although it can affect younger people, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles over the age of 65 (but, again, that does not mean that it is a normal part of aging!). Alzheimer’s attacks the neurons in the brain that produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical). As a result, the brain has less of this vital neurotransmitter, and as acetylcholine and similar chemicals break down, abnormal brain lesions develop. The victim suffers memory loss, language difficulties, and behavioral changes, and this becomes worse over time.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. Currently, treatments are available which help alleviate symptoms and slow the progress of the disease.
- Aricept (Generic: Donepezil) has a limited ability to slow the disease for two to three years.
- Cognex (Generic: Tacrine) has a similar effect to Aricept, but side effects are severe, and so this drug is no longer being marketed.
- Exelon (Generic: Rivastigmine), like Aricept, helps prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine (and also butyrylcholine), and can be delivered via skin patch.
- Razadyne (Generic: Galantamine) not only helps prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine but stimulates the brain to produce more acetylcholine.
- Namenda (Generic: Memantine) protects the brain against messenger chemicals released by cells that have been damaged by Alzheimer’s.
A number of organizations are additionally fighting Alzheimer’s through advocacy, research, clinical trials, and more.