An estimated 106,000 Nebraskans and Iowans are battling Alzheimer's disease, which robs them of their memory, alters their behavior and impairs their ability to think clearly.
An additional 215,000 people in the two states are providing millions of hours of unpaid care to those with the disease, adding to their own physical and emotional stress.
The Alzheimer's Association Midlands Chapter today will discuss this and other information from the new Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures report, a compilation of the latest information on Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. The presentation will be at 10:30 a.m. outside the northwest end of the CenturyLink Center, where the Omaha Health, Wellness & Fitness Expo is being held. A Walk for Alzheimer's begins at 10 a.m. at the arena, with check-in and late registration beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Nebraska and Iowa have lots of people with Alzheimer's because both states have high proportions of older people, said Dr. Roger Brumback, professor of pathology, psychiatry and neurology at the Creighton University School of Medicine.
Nearly all of the counties in Nebraska and Iowa are above the national average — 13 percent — in their percentage of residents who are 65 or older, the U.S. Census Bureau says.
“We do have an elderly population,” Brumback said. “We have generally good health care in the region — people are not dying of other things. ... We have people who tend to have a lot of longevity. You have to live long enough to get the disease.”
Alzheimer's is mostly age-related, Brumback said. It seems that being physically healthy and intellectually active delay the onset of the disease, he said, but researchers haven't shown that such physical and mental factors cause the disease, only that they are associated.
“The thing we know is, the nerve cells start dying,” he said. “In their dying, we find these abnormal proteins. They're normal constituents of the brain, but they're abnormally arranged.”
Brumback compared the situation to pouring concrete into molds that form the pillars of a building under construction. Instead of forming pillars, he said, the proteins start to clump up into big mounds. “We don't understand what causes that to occur,” he said.
The effects of Alzheimer's could be accumulating in a person's brain for 30 years before they become apparent, Brumback said. Over those 30 years, he said, the proteins are building up and breaking down nerve cells. “They're losing their nerve cells faster and faster until, finally, they show up with the symptoms.”
The brain stops properly operating the body's systems, Brumback said, and people can develop urinary tract infections or lung infections, the two most common causes of death among those with Alzheimer's.
The scientists who figure out why the protein clumping starts in the first place, he said, will win a Nobel Prize.
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