No-one quite knows what actually causes Alzheimer’s disease and it is highly likely that no one single factor triggers Alzheimer’s, but a number of factors such as age, genetics and environmental factors that may well differ from one individual to another.
Some experts believe the destruction of brain nerve cells which causes a reduction in acetylcholine (a stimulator), with the damaged cells ultimately blocking the transmission of nerve signals to one another, to be one of the causes of Alzheimer’s.
Others believe abnormal proteins in the brain such as “plaques” and “tangles” are the instigators. These proteins get their name from how they appear on the brain under a microscopic lens.
Plaques are the result of a normal body protein called beta-amyloid that has been transformed into a toxic form of the protein which kills surrounding cells to form these plaque like fibers. The Neurofibrillary Tangle is similar to Plaques and is the result of a buildup of the protein Tau inside brain nerve cells.
This is a hot topic in the research world and some scientists believe these to be an effect of Alzheimer’s and not a cause. More research is ongoing and shedding new light on this area is seen as vital to understanding the disease in greater depth.
One of the causes we do know of is the aging process with the risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubling every 5 years after the age of 65 and going on to reach upwards of a 50% chance of developing the disease after the age of 85.
We also know that genetics play an important role in Alzheimer’s with people who have a family history of the disease 4 times more likely to go on and develop some forms of dementia, although only 5% of all cases are a result of hereditary predisposition.
Environmental factors are also believed to play some kind of role in Alzheimer’s with one theory dating a few years back suggesting exposure to aluminum to be quite significant, but again, research has proven somewhat inconclusive on this.
One new area of research that holds some promise focuses on the neurons (brain cells). Despite an Alzheimer’s affected brain shrinking, the neurons don’t die, they become inactive and current research is trying to determine whether reigniting these dormant brain cells will reverse the disease or slow it down.
As with any disease, the key to finding a cure or better treatment methods is by understanding the causes and components of the disease. Thankfully Alzheimer’s is considered seriously enough in both the scientific and medical world to qualify for billions of dollars worth of funding and with most of the modern world under threat from Alzheimer’s, this is one area of health that is regularly under the microscope not only in laboratories but the media too.