In the early 1900s, a fifty-year-old German woman named Auguste Deter started experiencing unusual memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. As her condition progressed, she began having hallucinations that her husband was being unfaithful and so he made the decision to bring her to the Institution for the Mentally Ill and Epileptics in Frankfurt, Germany.
There, Dr. Aloysius “Alois” Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, took note of Deter and became intrigued with her unusual symptoms. Dr. Aloysius Alzheimer spent copious amounts of time with her, asking questions that revealed fascinating information he’d never seen before.
When asked her for her own name, she confidently and correctly answered. However, when asked her for her husband’s name, she replied with her own, “Auguste”. In other tests, although she could recognize ordinary objects (pencil, watch, key) that were placed in front of her, she would confuse the spinach on her plate for pork. Additionally, Deter displayed an ability to remember short-term information.
When Dr. Aloysius Alzheimer showed her a series of objects and asked her to recall the objects a short time later, she failed to recollect what she had seen. Lastly, Alzheimer noticed that her condition seemed to worsen in the evenings, and she would become increasingly disoriented. He also noticed that her speech became disjointed, and she would often wake up screaming (Dr. Alois).
This phenomenon, now known as “sundowning”, is what changed Alzheimer’s initial diagnosis of presenile dementia (Sleep Issues). It wasn’t until her death, which followed five years later in 1906, that Alzheimer made his most impactful discovery (The Story). When Deter passed away, Alzheimer studied her brain and found significant “abnormalities and extensive atrophy degeneration of tissue in the cortex- the outer layer that is responsible for memory, language, judgment and thought in general” (The Story). What was most astounding about his findings was Auguste Deter’s age.
He had neverNever had he seen a person in their fifties with such a progressed form of dementia—other patients with similar issues had been in their 70s. It was Deter’s brain-boggling case that initiated the world’s mission for understanding the complexities of memory loss. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s Disease is a “progressive mental deterioration that can occur in middle or old age, due to generalized degeneration of the brain” (What is Alzheimer’s). Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which is “a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life”, accounting for between 60 and 80 percent of dementia cases (What is Alzheimer’s). Like displayed in Deter’s case, Alzheimer’s worsens over time and is not a traditional part of the aging process.
. As time goes by, an individual with Alzheimer’s progresses through “stages”. Initially, memory loss is mild but, towards the final stages individuals lose the ability to perform daily tasks or follow a simple conversation (What is Alzheimer’s).
While dementia is often associated with aging, it is not part of the normal process. According to Canada Alzheimer’s Society, almost 40 percent of people over the age of 65 experience some form of memory loss (Normal aging). What differentiates Alzheimer’s from other forms of memory loss is its severity and persistent symptoms. Someone with age-related memory loss might not remember the name of an acquaintance, while someone with Alzheimer’s might not recognize or know the names of friends and family.
These unfortunate symptoms have left millions to cope with the tragic effects of their deteriorating memory. An estimated 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. Typically, the disease begins to display signs as people near their late 60s to early 70s. Diagnosing Alzheimer’s is a very difficult process due to the many crossovers with other forms of dementia that exist.
Doctors typically perform mental status and mood testing, physical and neurological exams, blood and brain scans as well as examine a thorough medical history. In the end, there is no test that can conclusively determine Alzheimer’s, it’s the elimination of all other possibilities that forms the final diagnosis (Diagnosis of). Once diagnosed, a person with Alzheimer’s generally lives four to eight more years, but can survive as long as 20, depending on other physiological factors (Stages of). Despite the very prominent symptoms and frequency of the disease, doctors and scientists are currently unable to determine a specific cause for Alzheimer’s.
According to the National Institute on Aging, “the causes probably include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors” (Alzheimer’s Disease). Although significant advances have been made since the first reported case of Alzheimer’s in 1906, something that is hindering scientists’ progression of understanding the disease is their inability to see the disease’s effects on the brain until the individual has died. As most know, the brain is composed of tens of billions of neurons which process and transmit information using specialized signals. In a brain with Alzheimer’s, this transmission is interrupted—ultimately resulting in cell death and loss of function (What happens). Additionally, abnormal deposits of proteins form amyloid plaques and tau tangles begin to accumulate throughout the brain (What happens).
Since the damage occurs within the very smallest structures of the brain, no current technology has the potential to see the progression and harm Alzheimer’s causes as it advances. However, once an individual dies, scientists can very easily observe the damage to the brain’s structures. After performing countless autopsies, scientists have noticed that the “damage initially appears to take place in the hippocampus, the part of the brain essential in forming memories. As more neurons die, additional parts of the brain are affected, and they begin to shrink.
By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly” (What happens). At death, an Alzheimer’s brain can be easily distinguished compared to a healthy brain due to its distinctive appearance; the brain is significantly shrunken, leaving a shriveled appearance (This is what). Though a strictly causal relationship is yet to be determined, researchers’ knowledge about Alzheimer’s has grown significantly in the last ten years. Because of this, early diagnosis is becoming more common—which enables early intervention— and hopefully gives Alzheimer’s patients their best shot at treatments that delay the progression of the disease (Alzheimer’s Disease Research Program).
The steady decline of brain functionality paired with untypical memory loss is classified as Alzheimer’s: a disease that slowly robs it’s “host” of everything that makes them who they are. Sadly, the most impactful form of unearthing for this disease comes when it is too late. However, what future generations can hope for is that the struggles of those before them will enable researchers to gather enough data to eventually develop treatment—so that no one will have to watch themselves slowly fade away.