So what is Alzheimer’s really? In 1906, Alois Alzheimer presented a case study of a female patient exhibiting loss of memory and other cognitive issues. An autopsy of her brain showed the buildup of proteins that are now known to be hallmarks of the disease. These proteins form clumps known as “plaques,” which appear to contribute to neuron death. There are also “tangles” of protein fiber that disrupt the neuron’s transit system. Eventually the communication between neurons breaks down. These plaques and tangles get worse over time.  

Some interesting facts:  it has been known for some time that people born with Down syndrome have a heightened propensity to develop the cranial plaques and tangles that characterize Alzheimer’s. However, many of the Down patients never develop dementia. According to their brain, they should have had Alzheimer’s but didn’t.

Another line of study involves rheumatoid arthritis which is a painful autoimmune disorder. People suffering from this type of arthritis generally do not get dementia. For a while, scientists were looking at the medication patients took for pain, particularly aspirin and ibuprofen as the reason that dementia didn’t occur. However, the results of the studies indicated no relationship. Now, science is looking for some other pathway between the arthritis and the reduced rate of dementia.

Some approaches to Alzheimer’s prevention bandied about in the press don’t work in practice. The idea that seniors who do daily crossword puzzles or take up a new language exercise their brains and stave off dementia does not bear any “fruit” with research. However some studies suggest that if you have spoken two languages all your life, you might be at a reduced risk for dementia.

There are studies showing that physical exercise may prevent dementia in old age because it seems to increase development of new neurons in the brain. With all the emphasis on exercise benefits for cardiovascular health and weight control, this observation is a “no brainer.”

According to the AARP article, “The fact remains, though, that we are a long way from finding either prevention or cure for the nation’s most expensive disease. Finding a solution is almost certainly going to require significant sums of federal research funding.  Getting that additional funding, in turn, is going to require greater efforts to make Alzheimer’s one of the diseases that enjoy political favor and thus the support of politicians.”

One surprising figure working hard to put Alzheimer’s in the spotlight is Seth Rogan. He took up the cause when he saw his mother-in-law disabled by dementia before she turned 60.  Rogan testified in front of a Senate hearing last year and said “Americans whisper the word Alzheimer’s because their government whispers the word Alzheimer’s. It needs to be yelled and screamed to the point that it finally gets the attention and the funding it deserves and needs.”

Thanks to T. R. Reid who wrote this article and wrote the recent book, The Healing of America. He also created the PBS Frontline documentary, Sick Around the World, which studied health care systems in industrialized democracies.