Alzheimer's affects more than 35 million people globally, robbing them of their precious memories and, over time, their lives. It is also the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. In a recently published study, experts proposed new guidelines that encourage clinical procedures to secure early diagnosis of the disease. They also want to see new drug trials aimed at eliminating Alzheimer's.
Dominic Batty doesn't like being dependent on his wife for everything. He suffers from Alzheimer's, which has left him virtually incapacitated.
"Part of me accepts that yes I'm going dotty and all the rest, but all the people around me are just having to cope with it because it's a great problem for them and that bothers me," he said.
The first sign of Alzheimer's disease is a failing memory. Eventually, sufferers no longer remember loved ones, cannot talk, walk or even smile.
And the best medications available today attack only the symptoms.
Experts say early diagnosis can make controlling symptoms easier and cut down on caregiving effort.
They also suggest that early diagnosis of Alzheimer's is important for procedures and treatments to be effective.
Simple brain scans and blood tests can be useful in detecting Alzheimer's long before physical symptoms start. Those form the key component of new guidelines issued in the medical Journal Lancet this week.
Dr. Ted Rothstein, a neurologist at George Washington Medical Center, says blood tests can reveal the accumulation of abnormal proteins forming plaque in the brain.
"They form a kind of tangle in the brain which interferes with the normal protein function in the brain," said Dr. Rothstein. "And you can measure Tau [a kind of protein] levels both in blood and spinal fluid which tend to be elevated in Alzheimer's patients when compared to normal patients."
There is no cure for this growing epidemic with soaring costs.
Alzheimer's Disease International, in its latest report, shows the cost of caring for Alzheimer's patients is set to reach $604 billion this year. Those costs are expected to rise as the number of cases could triple by 2050. Dr. Rothstein:
"As of today we do not have any medication that prevents the disease from progressing and the treatments that are available are mildly effective with regard to the symptoms - the memory loss or the other disturbances," he said. "Eventually these patients continue to progress, continue to lose their memory, their activity of daily living and within five years most of them wind up in nursing homes."
Five per cent of Alzheimer's patients inherit this condition through a familial gene. But for the vast majority of others, age is the common factor. After the age of 65 the chances of developing the disease doubles every five years. At the age of 85, there is a 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's.
Researchers urge countries to invest more in finding treatments for this disease, otherwise the cost of caring for Alzheimer's patients will reach crisis proportions.