Alzheimer's disease has become so pervasive that all readers of this article will have either someone in their own families or someone in their friends' families suffer from it.
Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia. According to the Alzheimer's Association, it strikes another person every 70 seconds.
The figures are staggering. According to the National Institute on Aging, recent estimates are that between 2.4 million and 4.5 million Americans are suffering from Alzheimer's, a number expected to increase dramatically because of the aging American population. The NIA estimates that the number of people who are 65 or older will grow from 29 million in 2008 to 72 million by 2030, with the number of Alzheimer's patients doubling at five-year intervals after age 64.
The Alzheimer's Association's Web site reports that 5.3 million Americans have the disease and that the direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer's and other dementias to Medicare, Medicaid and businesses amount to more than $148 billion each year.
Research into the brain and how Alzheimer's disease affects it continues.
Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist who is chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, notes that the goal of much of medical research has been to increase the life span of the body, but not that of the mind.
"The brain is the most modifiable part of the body. Fitness doesn't stop from the neck down," she says.
Chapman conducted a study involving people whose memories were not as good as they once had been. Either the subjects recognized the change personally or it was noticed by their spouses.
The study involved 10 training sessions in which participants were provided with everyday information, such as news stories. Participants then had to provide verbal synopses of the information.
"Their memory for information became more robust," Chapman says.
This study examined when to get cognitive training to delay or to avoid Alzheimer's disease. It looked at the ability to track information and the effect on the frontal lobe.
Much of Alzheimer's research deals with memory, but it is important to study the frontal lobe, as well. "The frontal lobe is one of the last parts of the brain to develop and the first to deteriorate," says Chapman, noting that the frontal lobe contains the ability to track information, solve problems and process abstract information.
"Without brain health, there is no health."
Research continues, but there is still no medication that can prevent or cure Alzheimer's.
According to Dr. Min Keun Song, a geriatrician with the Memory Disorders Clinic in Milton, Mass., the Food and Drug Administration has approved four drugs to treat Alzheimer's -- Aricept, Exelon, Razadyne and Namenda.
The medications, which can lessen symptoms and slow the progression of Alzheimer's, are generally more effective in the early stages of the disease.
The increasing number of Alzheimer's patients provides additional challenges for families, many of whom serve as caregivers.
Technology also is playing a role in the daily lives of Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers. One example is Comfort Zone, a location-based electronic mapping service that provides information about a person's location. Similar to GPS technology, the patient wears or carries a locator device. If the patient wanders, as Alzheimer's patients often do, Comfort Zone enables his family to track his location through the Internet or monitoring center. The family can decide upon the level of monitoring.
There is new information about Alzheimer's available online. The Alzheimer's Foundation of America has launched a prevention Web site (http://www.alzprevention.org). It has information about healthy lifestyle choices people can make to ensure successful aging.
By going to http://www.alz.org/10signs, people can learn about the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer's, which include confusion with time or place, memory loss in daily life and difficulty in completing familiar tasks.