Demographers, gerontologists, health providers, and politicians, are all in agreement that the rate of dependent elderly in the general population will continue to rise. This is partly because of the spectacular progress in treating lethal conditions such as cancer, infections, and heart diseases. However, prolonging life has not been matched by progress in treating the chronic diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s dementia, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s, and degenerative joint diseases.
The number of octogenarians (aged 80-89) will increase by a factor of 5 between 2000 and 2050, to 311 million, while the number of nonagenarians (aged 90-99) will expand by a factor of 8 to 63 million. Currently, 17% of the entire European population is at retirement age, 3% are frail and/or demented, and 1.5% reside in nursing homes.
About 10% of all individuals over 65 years of age, and 35% of those over 80, suffer from some form of dementia. 50% to 70% of all people with dementia suffer from Alzheimer’s disease – a degenerative disease, which slowly and progressively destroys brain cells. The disease is named after Aloïs Alzheimer, a German neuropatholgist who in 1907 described brain lesions (amyloid plaques and tangles) in a patient who manifested symptoms of dementia during life. The disease affects memory, behavior and mental functioning (e.g. judgment, speaking), as well as basic life functions such as ambulation, sleeping, swallowing and the ability to control body sphincters.
At first the symptoms – such as difficulty with memory and loss of intellectual abilities – may be so slight that they go unnoticed, both by the person concerned and his or her family and friends. However, as the disease progresses, the symptoms become more and more noticeable and begin to interfere with work and social activities. Practical difficulties with daily tasks such as dressing, washing, and going to the bathroom gradually become so severe that in time the ill person becomes totally dependent on others.
As yet, there is no preventative or curative treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. However, a number of new drugs may slow the progression of the disease and help alleviate some symptoms such as agitation, anxiety, hallucinations, and insomnia.
Researchers have found that patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease have reduced levels of acetylcholine – a neurotransmitter (chemical substance responsible for transmitting messages from one cell to another) that plays a role in memory processes. There currently exist drugs which can inhibit the enzyme responsible for destroying acetylcholine, thus increasing the concentration of the substance available to the neurons. These drugs improve memory and concentration however, the improvement is inconsistent and not very large. Therefore, other pharmacological strategies such as attempts to dismantle the amyloid plaque are currently being experimented.