According to a Marist Public Opinion poll, Alzheimer’s is the disease Americans fear most – more than heart disease, more than cancer. And no one wants to talk about fears. The thing is, understanding the 3 types of Alzheimer’s is one of the keys to coping with it – and to giving yourself or your loved one the greatest quality of life possible.
Wait, you say. Isn’t all Alzheimer’s the same? Well, yes and no. The symptoms and the way the disease plays out are basically the same. But the prevalence, and the causes, are very different. So let’s take a look.
The first of the 3 types of Alzheimer’s is late-onset. This is the Alzheimer’s most people are familiar with, and it affects 90% of the people who suffer from the disease. Generally speaking, late-onset is diagnosed in people 65 years of age or older. That might be why people think that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are a natural part of aging.
Alzheimer’s is a specific disease. While up until recently researchers weren’t sure quite what caused it, they have identified a gene called APOE that increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s. But even then, the specific cause of late-onset was unclear. Recently, though, Dr. Philippe Marambaud at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and Albert Einstein College of Medicine seems to have found a clue. It now appears to be very likely that there is a gene in the hippocampus region of the brain that acts as a calcium channel.
This was a huge discovery. Researchers have known for a long time that Alzheimer’s causes a buildup of calcium, or plaque, in the brain. So it makes total sense that a gene – CALHM1, in case you were curious – involved in calcium regulation would be a decisive factor in Alzheimer’s.
Why is this important? Because the only way to develop more effective ways of preventing or slowing Alzheimer’s – and hopefully one day curing it – is to understand what causes it in the first place.
The second type of Alzheimer’s is early-onset. It’s not very common, which is comforting because it generally begins in 50-year olds, although it has been diagnosed in people as young as the mid-30s. It often takes a while to get a diagnosis, whether because those who have it are usually at a very busy point in their lives where they have little for doctors, or because its rarity leads to misdiagnoses at first. Unlike late-onset Alzheimer’s, researchers have isolated the genes that cause early-onset Alzheimer’s.
You might have heard that early-onset Alzheimer’s progresses more rapidly than late-onset. That’s a myth; don’t believe it. It is true, however, that adults with Down’s Syndrome are at higher risk for it. So if you have a loved one with Down’s, keep an eye out for them.
Familial Alzheimer’s Disease, or FAD, is the rarest of the 3 types of Alzheimer’s. It’s also a kind of early-onset, but it’s also hereditary. Researcher’s know exactly which gene mutations cause it, and people who have a parent or grandparent with FAD can choose to be tested for it.
This is a huge decision. On the one hand, if you test for it and the test comes back negative, you can heave a huge sigh of relief. But if it’s positive, then you might be in the unenviable position of knowing at a very young age that your chances of suffering from FAD are very high.
Some people choose to take the test because they want to be able to plan and make decisions when their minds are clear and functioning. Knowing also gives one the advantage of being able to participate in clinical and pharmaceutical trials that could significantly improve one’s quality of life and maybe even cure the disease altogether – something researchers have been trying to do for years. It is a very personal decision, though, and one no one else should be making it for you.
Do you have a loved one who is struggling with Alzheimer’s? Please share your experiences in the comments below.