By Magda Panoutsopoulou
ATHENS (AA) - Alzheimer’s is often called the epidemic of the 21st century.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 55 million people live with dementia and this number is estimated to reach 78 million by 2030 and 139 million by 2050.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Dementia means loss of cognitive function. The most common reason disease for this loss is an accumulation of certain substances in the brain (mostly amyloid and tau); these are Alzheimer’s changes. So, a more correct term is dementia of the Alzheimer’s type,” Nikolaos Scarmeas, a professor of neurology at the Medical School of the University of Athens, told Anadolu Agency.
The exact causes of the disease are not known, however genetic factors and age are considered to be some of the main ones, Sofia Kanellopoulou, a health psychologist at the daycare center of the Athens Alzheimer’s Association, told Anadolu Agency.
Recently, there have been studies that link the disease with high cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and smoking.
However, Scarmeas said: “The cholesterol problem is quite complex. There are some studies that suggest that problems with cholesterol at mid-age may play a role in dementia at old age. But there has been no proven preventive effectiveness of cholesterol-lowering drugs so far.”
- Scientific Progress
Since the early discovery of the disease by German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer in 1901, a lot of progress has been made and scientists and researchers are optimistic that the path to its cure might be on the way.
“There are quite a few drugs being tested in phase III studies,” Scarmeas said.
Earlier this year, an additional 42 genes were discovered that scientists linked to the development of the disease.
The most significant discovery was the MGMT gene which scientists linked to the development of the disease in women making them more susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s than men.
“It has been known for a long that the disease is more common for women compared to men. There are many potential reasons for this including the loss of hormonal protection post-menopause, the longer life expectancy etc. Maybe there are additional genetic reasons,” Scarmeas said.
In recent years, other types of treatment were also used worldwide mostly for patients who are in the initial or middle stage of the disease and are applied in combination with medication.
Such treatments might include mental empowerment, speech therapy, occupational therapy, art therapy and physical exercise.
“Much funding has been funneled to dementia research since this is a major public health problem,” Scarmeas said, adding that “much better therapeutic tools in the future” will be available.
- Living with it
There are usually three stages of the disease – early, mid and advanced. In the advanced stage, patients are completely unable to communicate with the environment and are 100% dependent on their caregivers.
A woman in her late 60s has been Alzheimer’s for the past 5 years. Her husband George Pano said that the progress of the disease is somehow slow, but changes have developed in the patient’s daily routine.
“She repeats herself several times, she forgets answers just a few seconds later,” Pano said.
“My biggest fear is that the time will come when she would not be able to recognize our children and our grandchildren or even me,” he said, adding: “It will be a nightmare.”
“Caring for family members that suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s could be stressful,” Kanellopoulou said.
Katerina, 53, takes care of her 78-year-old mother suffering from an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s.
“It is a very difficult task”, she said.
“There are times that she asks to go visit her parents and her husband; they are all dead,” Katerina told Anadolu Agency with an obvious distressed tone.
“It is the worst thing to see that someone you love and care about is unable to recognize you. I sometimes cannot handle it,” she added.
“The emotional burden is very important as caregivers are more likely to be depressed, they tend to increase the use of psychotropic drugs medicines and visit doctors more often … They do not sleep well and feel exhausted. The constant anxiety is a particularly aggravating factor,” Kanellopoulou said.
In Greece only, according to Athens Alzheimer’s Association, there are 200,000 people suffering from dementia and 280,000 people from a mild mental disorder that is a precursor to dementia, while there are around 400,000 caregivers dealing with patients suffering from it.
Although the country has devised a national action plan for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and there are memory clinics and daycare centers mostly in the large cities of Greece, services are still significantly inadequate.