For approximately 1 in 10 people over the age of 65, Alzheimers disease is a very real and unfortunate life sentence. All those memories and skills that get built up over a lifetime, from your first kiss to languages learnt, slip away like water running downhill. We know of no way to cure the disease yet, but slowly and painstakingly, scientists are developing a better understanding of how it affect our brains.
We do know now that abnormal protein fragments accumulate in the brain, called Amyloids. These are a normal part of the brain’s functions and have important antioxidant properties, allowing the brain to remain adaptable and form new connections. They also help reinforce old ones, like those involving memory.
It’s ironic then, that the very protein that helps us to store memories, eventually ends up destroying them.
The problem is, as we age, amyloids begin clumping together, creating sticky masses called plaques and tangles that interfere with normal brain cell function. Healthy neurons are eventually starved of nutrients critical to their communication ability with other cells.
Experts now believe that this clumping process begins as early as our 20s.
With age, the plaques and tangles spread out across the whole brain, creating impairment in each area of the brain as they go. As different functions are affected, we go through the various stages of Alzheimers.
It’s quite an ordered advance through the brain that has been well documented.
Initially this process begins in the hippocampus, the region of the brain where our short term memories are kept.
Then it moves to an area that deals with languages, making it harder to find the right words.
Next is logical thought, affecting our ability to solve problems, make plans and grasp concepts.
Then it invades the area dealing with emotions, creating mood swings and robbing us of our ability to control feelings.
After that it moves to the region where we process things around us through our senses, such as sight and hearing, leading to confusion and hallucinations.
When the tangles and plaques reach the back of the brain, it affects all our oldest and most precious memories. This is why many patients with advanced Alzheimers have very little control or understanding of their daily lives, but can remember intimate details of their youth.
Finally Alzheimers steals our motor abilities, impairing our legs, limbs and lastly control of our heart and lungs.
The path of the plaques and tangles takes about 8-10 years from the first appearance in the hippocampus until the disease’s fatal end.
No-one is immune. And no cure exists, yet.
To better understand Alzheimers and the process, this short video may help.