Nearly 4.5 million people suffer from Alzheimer's disease (AD) in our country, and more than half of them are women, according to the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md.
As the general population continues to age, this number is expected to increase significantly over the next few decades.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, a group of brain disorders that interferes with a person's ability to carry out daily activities. In AD, areas of the brain change and deteriorate, which causes a decline in cognition and memory functioning. In some patients, the deficits are large enough to get in the way of performing normal, everyday tasks.
There is evidence that AD affects women differently than men. "Many studies of gender differences in cognition have pointed to greater language deficits in women with Alzheimer's disease as compared to men," explains Michael S. Rafii, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Memory Disorders Clinic and an attending neurologist at the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer Disease Research Center at the University of California, San Diego. "Naming and word-recognition skills have been reported to be more adversely affected in female patients with AD than in male patients, and the differences have been shown to be sustained over time."
Notable sex and gender differences in behavior among Alzheimer patients have been observed as well. "Male patients exhibit greater problems than female patients in wandering, abusiveness and social impropriety, particularly in the more advanced stages of the disorder," Rafii points out. In fact, major tranquilizers and behavior management programs are used more frequently on male patients.
While there is currently no cure for AD, researchers continue to make progress. More drugs are being studied, and researchers have identified several genes associated with the disease. "Recent work has been focused on identifying the molecule that may be causing AD symptoms," says Rafii. Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Johns Hopkins University "discovered a protein complex in the brain that appears to impair memory."
Combined with sophisticated imaging techniques, this discovery is enabling scientists to take a clear picture of the protein deposits in the brain. According to Rafii, "This could lead to accurate diagnosis of AD at very early stages.
Previously, a definitive diagnosis of the disease could only be made through an autopsy after the patient's death, typically at a very late stage of the illness."
Diagnosing AD can be tricky, especially because many people are under the assumption that forgetfulness is a normal part of the aging process. But patients with AD suffer from much more than simple memory lapses. Here are a few common signs and symptoms of the disease:
- Persistent forgetfulness or memory loss
- Problems performing routine tasks
- Inability to express thoughts coherently or finish sentences
- Loss of judgment
- Changes in personality
As in other diseases, early diagnosis is very important for patients with AD. Certain medications have been found to be useful in the earlier stages of the disease, so the sooner the diagnosis is made, the better.