A Layperson’s Exploration of the Science of Alzheimer’s
When I first got my official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s the terms used were so foreign to me that, for a nanosecond, I wondered if my disease was making it hard for me to understand English. I was trapped in a scientific Tower of Babel.
But I soon realized the confusion wasn’t the fault of my brain but rather the inability of physicians and clinical specialists to explain concepts in simple ways that a layperson could understand. Though not a scientist or neurologist, I set myself a challenge: study the science of Alzheimer’s so that I could explain what was going on to both myself and perhaps even others.
Achieving that goal would give me more confidence when it came time to make difficult decisions about my lifestyle, treatments, and so on.
Making Sense of the Language
Here’s just a sampling of the words used in my official Alzheimer’s diagnosis: “Neurocognitive disorder NOS… change in the parietal lobe and cerebellar vermis…abnormal parietotemporal hypometabolism… clinical concern of Alzheimer’s dementia.…”
As I began my journey to understand what these terms and many others meant and what, specifically, was happening in my brain, I leaned on the expertise of Dr. Ann-Charlotte Granholm-Bentley (Lotta), a neurology researcher who later became the first director of the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging at the University of Denver.
What Lotta helped me understand is that Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, a general clinical term for a loss of memory, problem-solving abilities, language, and other brain functions that interferes with daily functions. Generally, dementia is the progressive loss of at least two cognitive (thinking) abilities.
While most who suffer from dementia have short-term memory loss, they can also struggle with basic math and spatial-temporal disorientation (getting lost or forgetting the date), or experience paranoia and disturbing hallucinations. Some people will have trouble navigating social situations, as their ailing brain struggles to filter out noises and faces in the midst of commotion. (This explains some of the changes I experienced that I didn’t realize at first were symptoms of the disease, such as my sudden reluctance to attend large social events I had previously enjoyed).
Though Alzheimer’s used to be thought of as an old person’s disease, it can be diagnosed as early as one’s forties or fifties. It is now thought that Alzheimer’s disease begins affecting the cells in our brains decades before any symptoms can be detected.
Plaques and Tangles
If you read much about Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll soon run into discussions of the cellular-level changes going on in the brain, which are divided into two types:
(1) Amyloid plaques—Amyloid is a naturally occurring protein in the brain. But in brains affected by Alzheimer’s disease, the amyloid proteins form abnormal clumps between the nerve cells (neurons), which interrupts cell function.
(2) Tau tangles—Tau refers to a different kind of naturally occurring protein that helps transport nutrients and other molecules inside the nerve cells. In Alzheimer’s disease, these tau proteins start sticking to each other, forming tangles, and they can no longer perform their primary function very well.
In short, both amyloid plaques and tau tangles are clumps of proteins that lead to the loss of nerve cells and/or at least a loss of function in nerve cells.
To make these all worse, other types of cells within the brain that are responsible for immune responses react to the amyloid plaques just as they would an injury—through inflammation. Research indicates that brain inflammation plays a critical role in the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Turning Knowledge into Power
Scientists are still debating the role of plaques and tangles, and do not yet know how to stop their formation. That means there is no single, definitive path forward in terms of treatment options at this point.
I can tell you, however, that every physician, clinician, and researcher I’ve dealt with agrees that inflammation in the brain can be triggered or exacerbated by stress, disease, poor diet, lack of fitness, environmental factors such as pesticides, and food additives. Once I understood this, I started doing everything I could to reduce the stress in my life, improve my diet and fitness, and avoid other chemical or environmental stressors.
And though I am still not as fluent in technospeak as Alzheimer’s experts, I am in a better position to understand what they are telling me about the status and progress of the disease. I am also happy that I now understand the science so I can evaluate the importance of developments in Alzheimer’s research and treatment.
Knowledge is power!