Is Alzheimer’s Disease a growing problem these days or has it always been around but called a different name, or not as frequently diagnosed?
The term Alzheimer’s Disease was first used in 1910 after Dr. Alois Alzheimer discovered shrinkage and abnormal deposits in the brain upon doing an autopsy of a woman who had profound memory loss. In the late 1960’s assessment tools were developed to measure mental and functional decline in the brains of older adults. Advances in technology allowed scientists to study brain cells in detail and observe during an autopsy that there were similar changes in the brain among those with memory loss.
In 1974 the National Institute on Aging established federal funding for Alzheimer’s research. The Alzheimer’s Association was founded in 1980 to advance research, support those affected by the disease and promote brain health. Efforts by the National Institute on Aging and Alzheimer’s Association have increased our awareness of the disease as a nation.
Back in the 60’s & 70’s scientific research and discoveries were not publicized in popular media. When an elderly person seemed confused, we called them senile. Remember the term “hardening of the arteries?” Families would try to keep it hush-hush and help their spouse or parent in the privacy of their own home. In the rare case a diagnosis was made, there were no medications or treatments available.
Fast forward to the current decade and you will notice people are much more forthcoming about illnesses, age-related or otherwise. The generation of Baby Boomers, who tend to be vocal about their wants and needs, and demand solutions to their problems, are now dealing with aging parents.
The rise in the number of Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease cannot be simply attributed to better diagnostic tools and the willingness of people to speak openly about their challenges. While the medical community cannot definitively answer the question either, examining risk factors can give us a clue.
The first risk factor is age. The older you get, the greater the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. In 1900, 4% of the U.S. population was over the age of 65. In 2012, that percentage increased to 13.7%. As the population grows, so do the number of Alzheimer’s cases.
Family history of Alzheimer’s is another risk factor, and the risk increases if more than one family member has been diagnosed. There is a genetic component to the higher risk, but researchers are also looking into environmental factors family members share. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, risk genes increase the likelihood of getting the disease, but do not guarantee it will happen. Risk genes have been found to be a factor in 20% – 25% of the cases. Deterministic genes, which are found to directly cause the disease, are a factor in less than 5% of the cases.
Other risk factors include diet and exercise, low mental stimulation, and social isolation. It is no secret that Americans could improve their nutrition, increase physical activity, and limit watching TV and other passive brain activities.
It makes sense to propose that as the risk factors of old age, genetics and poor lifestyle choices are present in a greater population in America, so does the growing incidence of Alzheimer’s.