Alzheimer's: Mystery Disease of the Elderly

November 11, 1983

Report Outline
Disease's Nature and Extent
Quest for Accurate Diagnosis
Treatments and Strategies
Special Focus

Disease's Nature and Extent

Growing Awareness of Millions Afflicted

Alzheimer's is a devastating but little-understood disease fast gaining public recognition for its widespread occurrences among elderly people. It leaves its victims confused, disoriented, and ultimately dependent on others. Medical science has not yet found a way to prevent or cure this disorder of the brain. The Public Health Service estimates that it affects at least one person in 20 between the ages of 65 and 75, and every fifth person over 80. By some estimates, as many as 2.5 million Americans suffer from the disease. Since most of its victims are old people, who form the fastest growing segment of the population, the numbers of afflicted are expected to grow enormously in the coming years.

Alzheimer's disease, pronounced Altz'-hi-merz and named for physician Alois Alzheimer who discovered it, is the most widespread form of dementia disorders. Dementia is the general term used to describe a number of symptoms associated with impairment of brain tissue function resulting in a decline in intellectual ability. Dementia has the ability to creep up undetected, at first causing its victims to be simply forgetful. But, the disease progresses to the point where the victims are totally disoriented and unable to care for themselves. They neither know who they are nor the people who are attending them. They resemble their former selves only physically.

It was only recently discovered that Alzheimer's disease is a neurological disorder rather than an inevitable part of the aging process. While most of its victims are elderly, some have been in their forties, and one as young as 28. It's a mysterious disease because it doesn't discriminate between its victims — there is no pattern to the race, sex or lifestyle of those it strikes. Researchers have been unable to pin down its origin and cause. They are examing many theories — that it's caused by a slow virus, a chemical deficiency, a genetic defect, an immunological system defect, a buildup of toxic minerals, or even acid rain.

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