It’s over a hundred years since the first case of Alzheimer’s disease was diagnosed.
Since then we’ve learned a great deal about the protein ‘tangles’ and ‘plaques’ that cause the disease. How close are we to having effective treatments – and could we even prevent dementia from occurring in the first place?
You may have heard of the ‘dementia tsunami’. It’s heading our way. As our population ages, the number of cases of dementia is set to rocket, overwhelming our health services and placing an enormous burden on our society.
Only, it’s not quite so simple.
A study published last year by Professor Carol Brayne from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health suggested that better education and living standards meant people were at a lower risk of developing the disease than previously thought. So, despite our ageing population, numbers were likely to stabilise – and could even perhaps fall slightly.
Of course, even this more optimistic outlook does not hide the fact that millions of people worldwide will be diagnosed with dementia each year. Millions are already living with the condition. An effective treatment for the ‘memory thief’ still seems like a distant prospect.
“Dementia isn’t one disease: it’s a constellation of changes in an individual’s brain, with many underlying causes,” says Brayne. “Most people, by the time they’re in their eighties or nineties, have some of these changes in their brains, regardless of whether or not they ever develop dementia.”
For this reason, Brayne believes we need a radical approach to tackling brain health throughout the course of our lifetime. We need a greater emphasis on reduction in the risk of dementia. This can be achieved through measures in society that are related to better health in general, such as social and lifestyle changes. In addition we can focus on early therapeutic approaches to preventing or treating the disease through a pharmaceutical approach.
I don’t think we should talk of a cure. At best, we will be able to halt the disease. Prevention will be much more important. – Michel Goedert
By far the most common and well-known form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
Symptoms include memory problems, changes in behaviour and progressive loss of independence.
At a biological level, the disease sees a build-up of two particular types of proteins in the brain: fragments of beta-amyloid clump together in ‘plaques’ between nerve cells. Twisted strands of tau form ‘tangles’ within the nerve cells. These plaques and tangles lead to the death of nerve cells, causing the brain to shrink.
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