Aging: Alzheimer’s Disease

At the turn of the 20th century, German psychiatrist Dr. Alois Alzheimer noted unusual behavioral symptoms—including short-term memory loss—in a middle-aged patient. After his patient died, Dr. Alzheimer used staining techniques to view his brain, revealing nerve cells, plaques, and tangles seen in people who suffer from this tragic disorder. Little progress was made over the next 75 years. As recently as 30 years ago, most people viewed dementia, or “senility,” as a normal part of aging.

PET scans comparing an Alzheimer’s brain with healthy brain. PET scans comparing an Alzheimer’s brain with healthy brain.Getty Images

Today, we know that about 5.1 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and health officials estimate that the aging of the U.S. population may result in 3 times as many cases by 2050. NIH-funded clinical studies are testing a range of new treatments for Alzheimer’s, including anti-oxidants, statins, gene therapy, and anti-depressants. Entirely new therapies and diagnostic techniques are under consideration, too.

Genetic and other basic research has unearthed 4 culprit genes as well as knowledge about how toxic molecules build up in the brain. Recently, NIH-supported researchers measured and tracked levels of biomarkers in spinal fluid that appear to signal the onset of the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Imagine the Future…

  • Sensitive imaging scans and blood tests detect the risk of Alzheimer’s disease early. 
  • Designer medications and/or vaccines prevent Alzheimer’s in people at risk.

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This page last reviewed on October 7, 2015