The Origin of Alzheimer’s Disease

One of the most dangerous and incorrect assumptions often made about Alzheimer’s is that it is a natural consequence of ageing – and that therefore, the longer you live, the more likely you are to develop it. This is simply not true. Many people live to a ripe old age without any significant loss in mental faculties. Only a small proportion of older people develop dementia and Alzheimer’s.

In some countries, for example India and China, that proportion appears to be less than half that occurring in Britain. When people in one country suffer much more from a disease than people of a similar age in another country, this is a sure sign that the difference has something to do with diet, lifestyle or other environmental factors – or genetic variance. We can rule out genetic differences as the major factor, particularly because Chinese and Indian people who emigrate to Britain soon acquire a similar risk for developing dementia. In any event only one in a hundred cases of Alzheimer’s is caused by genes.2

A decline in memory and concentration is not the same thing as a diagnosis of dementia or probable Alzheimer’s, although it does mean your chances of developing these conditions are higher. Every year roughly a million people in Europe will develop age-related cognitive impairment. Within a few years, more than 50 per cent, and possibly 80 per cent, of these people will develop dementia.3 Currently, there are an estimated 750,000 people with dementia in Britain, and some 24 million worldwide.

Roughly speaking, 50 to 70 per cent of people diagnosed with dementia will end up diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s, while 20 per cent will be given a diagnosis of vascular dementia, caused by constricted blood flow to the brain due to blocked arteries. There are other forms, such as dementia with Lewy bodies, fronto-temporal dementia and dementia caused by a stroke, a bleed in the brain or a brain tumour. But as Alzheimer’s is the most widespread, let’s look at it in depth.

The anatomy of Alzheimer’s

Dementia – including Alzheimer’s – is an insidious condition. In the early stages, sufferers have increasing symptoms of absentmindedness, low mood and an inability to learn new things. Judgement, and their ability to function intellectually and socially, begin to go awry. The person may repeatedly forget to turn off the iron, or may not recall which medicines they took in the morning. They may start to show mild personality changes, such as a lack of spontaneity or a sense of apathy and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.

Later on, there will be a loss of logic and memory, disorientation and poor coordination. Speech deteriorates and paranoia may appear. At this point, a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s disease may be given. Why ‘probable’? Because Alzheimer’s is properly diagnosed, not simply by symptoms, but by the presence of a specific kind of degeneration in a specific part of the brain – and this is difficult to see without the aid of expensive scans.

The German neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer discovered this characteristic degeneration in the brain back in 1906. Using a technique known as silver stain, he examined the brain cells of a woman who died prematurely at 55 with signs of dementia, and found a tangled mess of proteins and clusters of degenerating nerve endings, called neurofibrillary tangles. This condition is associated with a gradual dying-off of neurons and poor communication between neurons. There is also often a build-up of something called beta-amyloid plaque, a protein-like substance that shouldn’t be there.

Since that time, research into Alzheimer’s has continued apace. Largely thanks to the pioneering work of Professor David Smith and colleagues in the University of Oxford’s pharmacology department, we now know that Alzheimer’s is a specific disease process, not just a random, gradual decline in brain cells, and that it originates in a particular brain region. Their Optima (Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing) study has been running since 1988 and has proved, among other things, that the damage leading to Alzheimer’s begins in a central part of the brain known as the medial temporal...

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