Alzheimer’s disease was first discovered in Germany in 1901 when a 51-year-old patient named Auguste Deter went to see her doctor Alois Alzheimer. The physician detected symptoms he had never seen before: Deter displayed erratic behavior, including short-term memory loss, and under his observation her condition rapidly declined into severe dementia.
When Auguste died in 1906, Alzheimer performed an autopsy on her brain. He found a range of pathological conditions spanning from the presence of plaques and tangled proteins to the shrinkage of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. From that day forward Alzheimer dedicated the rest of his career to study the disease, which was later named after him.
Doctors still don’t understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease. We know that some people are genetically predisposed to getting it. Those who carry the PSEN1, PSEN2 and APP genes will get a form of early-onset Alzheimer’s and those who carry the genetic variant APOE4 have a higher chance of getting it. But science has yet to understand what causes the build up of the amyloid plaque, which appears in a brain years before a patient is usually diagnosed.
Scientists are tackling the disease from several different angles. Some are looking for ways to fight beta amyloid plaque, while others are targeting tau tangles. There are also scientists who believe the best way to eradicate the disease is to deny the first stage – preventing the formation of any amyloid plaque with a type of vaccination. Others are looking into the possibility of a range of potential triggers – from toxicity caused by environmental factors to the way our genes process certain elements like iron.
Alzheimer’s research is significantly underfunded when compared to diseases like cancer. The U.S. alone spends over $200 billion on the care of Alzheimer’s patients each year while only around one billion dollars is spent on research for the equivalent period of time. In 2016 the U.S. Senate passed a bill to raise research funding to $1.4 billion for 2017 – but it’s not nearly enough to keep up with the pace of the disease.
The growth trajectory of people who will get Alzheimer’s is staggering. The disease currently impacts over 47 million people around the world. Given that humans are living longer, experts estimate that over 130 million people will contract the disease by 2050. One out of three people are likely to get Alzheimer’s by the time they are 80 years old and almost one out of two will have it once they cross 85.