Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating health condition that currently afflicts almost 5.5 million Americans. This is the most common type of dementia in which sufferers initially lose memory and cognitive function, but the disease progresses until major brain function disappears and death ensues. There is no cure for this illness which is why, in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death.
You probably already know someone with Alzheimer’s disease—and if you don’t yet, you probably will soon. It is estimated that more Americans will contract this illness as the nation ages. The Alzheimer’s Association predicts that 16 million Americans will show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease by 2050.
This horrifying illness is not a merciful killer. The average life expectancy following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is eight years, during which time you can expect to deplete your savings on in-home or nursing facility care. It is estimated that the U.S. currently spends almost $260 billion on patients with Alzheimer’s disease, but this could grow to $1 trillion by 2050.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Although there is considerable research about Alzheimer’s disease going on throughout the world, many mysteries about this brain disease remain. Medical researchers know that this illness attacks cells in the brain, but the exact mechanism is unknown. Researchers suspect that there is a biochemical malfunction that allows the buildup of plaques composed of beta-amyloid protein between neural cells. Studies also show an abnormal accumulation of tau proteins inside of nerve cells. However, how this protein buildup interferes with brain function remains unclear.
It is clear that Alzheimer’s disease does attack the hippocampus of the brain first. The hippocampus is essential in learning and memory formation which is why one of the initial symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss and confusion. However, once this illness has progressed to later stages, the plaques spread to all regions of the brain, killing off neural tissue and inhibiting all major brain functions.
The Current State of Alzheimer’s Research
It was in 1906 that Dr. Alois Alzheimer initially recognized that a specific type of dementia produced memory loss, diminished communication skills and irrational behavior. Dr. Alzheimer performed an autopsy on a patient and discovered an unusual number of plaques and tau protein tangles in the brain.
Since its discovery by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, there has been a growing body of research, but so far, no cure for the disease. Although an active, healthy lifestyle may make it easier to cope with some symptoms, there are limited treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. Medications like antidepressants and antipsychotics may help mitigate some symptoms like depression and hallucinations.
A new medication called Namenda was approved recently by the FDA to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. This drug helps regulate glutamate in the brain. It is based on research that brain cells damaged by Alzheimer’s disease over-produce glutamate which in turn attach to other nerve cells causing more damage.
Although the rate of advancement in the field of Alzheimer’s research is frustratingly slow, there is hope that medicine will soon achieve some major breakthroughs. New treatments may target the production of beta-amyloid proteins that make up the plaques common to Alzheimer’s disease. Methods involving monoclonal antibodies that attack protein production have shown promise and a new drug called Aducanumab is under development. Other therapies targeting the neural network deterioration found in Alzheimer’s disease patients are also being studied; a drug previously used in cancer treatment may prove fruitful in preserving brain function.
Inflammation is also a feature of Alzheimer’s disease that is being scrutinized by researchers. There is some evidence that the diabetes drug pioglitazone may relieve some brain inflammation and limit the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Protect Yourself from Alzheimer’s Disease
If you want to minimize your risk of contracting Alzheimer’s disease and the financial difficulties that often accompany it, there are some steps you can take right now. Although the exact causes of Alzheimer’s disease aren’t fully understood, more than a century of study has helped us identify ways to stave off the disease and slow progression.
First of all, you should adopt healthy habits like exercising regularly—at least 30 minutes three or four times a week—and eating nutritiously. Many Alzheimer’s experts recommend a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, fish and dairy; you should avoid too much red meat, wine or poultry.
Sleeping well is also essential for good brain health. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep nightly has been shown to limit the buildup of beta-amyloid plaques.
There is also limited evidence that you should keep exercising your brain to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. This should include academic or cognitive learning but may also involve maintaining a vigorous social life. These activities will help your brain continue operating at peak efficiency, preventing the onset of dementia.
Do You Need Supplemental Alzheimer’s Insurance?
Of the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, only 200,000 acquired this disease prior to age 65. Fortunately, that means that most Alzheimer’s patients have Medicare to help pay for medical expenses. For many, that may sound like sufficient insurance, but the reality is less comforting.
Medicare may help with paying for doctor’s visits and any short-term hospitalization, but this government insurance program won’t pay for many prescription drugs (unless you enroll in Medicare Part D or a Medicare Advantage plan with drug coverage) or long-term care.
While Alzheimer’s disease patients may not need home care or long-term facility care at first, eventually such care will become a necessity. In-home or nursing care to assist in day-to-day maintenance is essential for Alzheimer’s patients that lose some or most of their cognitive function.
If you expect to rely on Medicare for your Alzheimer’s disease treatment, then you should strongly consider a Medigap or Medicare Advantage plan that includes long-term care benefits. These plans come in a wide variety of types with differing benefits and costs. If you would like to learn more about these plans please visit Boost Health Insurance.