Dementia: A Forgotten Crisis

Dementia: A Forgotten Crisis

By Chino Kieran Eke

In the United States, there are approximately 5.8 millions Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease. This disease causes the slow loss of mental faculties, including memory, critical thinking, and the ability to carry out simple tasks. While the disease principally affects individuals in their mid-60s, it is projected to impact the lives of 13.8 million Americans by 2050 despite medical advances that have improved the overall quality of life of afflicted patients.

While the treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is largely ineffective in the pharmaceutical realm, complementary therapies have proven to help maintain or improve the quality of life of a person with Alzheimer’s. For example, music therapy has proven to treat the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. It enables people with Alzheimer’s to form meaningful human interactions with the therapist. Although music therapy and other complementary therapies do not provide a cure for the disease, they improve the quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s is believed to be caused by the buildup tau proteins which form plaques that effectively block the spread of information between neurons. As more plaques form, the information flow between neurons becomes more restricted, impairing a neuron’s ability to function properly. These plaques eventually cause neuronal death which leads to the shrinkage of the brain and the loss of memory, control over reasoning, language and thinking. Ultimately, this disease has devastating effects on those it affects and their loved ones. 

In 1980, a Congressional Hearing was held on the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on America’s elderly in order to help establish public funding for citizens with the disease. During this hearing, Alzheimer’s patients without proper care were described as suffering an “unbearable loss of dignity and self-respect” which undeniably has had a “crushing impact upon their spouses.” This hearing, ultimately, lead to the establishment of public funding for hospice and long-term care through Medicaid which cost the government an approximate “$290 billion for Alzheimer’s or other dementias” in 2019. With a growing number of Americans expected to have Alzheimer’s by 2050, the annual spending is projected to increase to 1.1 trillion. The near quadrupling of the current cost demonstrates how Alzheimer’s and other dementias present a daunting crisis for society. 

Currently, pharmaceuticals such as “cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine only treat the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease,” but no medications exist that directly treats or prevents the buildup of tau plaques in the brain. There have been a number of studies performed in the last decade that have led to major advancements in the understanding of the disease, but they have all been quite limited in scope. This is primarily due to “low recruitment and high attrition rates” of research subjects with Alzhermier’s disease or related dementias. The best solution to this research impediment is increasing awareness surrounding the importance of this type of research; perhaps, then, rates of public participation might actually rise and a pharmaceutical treatment that slows or prevents the progression of plaque buildup may become a reality. 

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