5 Things You Never Knew About Alzheimer's
We associate Alzheimer's with plaques and tangles. But the first sign of the disease in the brain is actually a loss of synapses that pass information from neuron to neuron. Once they go, the neurons follow suit (a dramatic decrease in neurons is also a hallmark of the disease). It's even possible to have a brain full of plaques and tangles and be sharp as a tack. In one study (aptly named the Nun Study), a group of nuns agreed to let researchers track their health, behaviors, mental status and, in the end, autopsy their brains. One participant in particular stood out: Sister Mary lived to the ripe old age of 101 and appeared to be smart, alert and attentive until the end. But when researchers examined her brain, they found that it was brimming with plaques and tangles.
2. "Dear Abby" Helped Bring It Into the Spotlight
In 1906, when a group of psychiatrists were told about the very first patient diagnosed with what we now call Alzheimer's (by Alois Alzheimer himself), not one asked him a question. The chairman of the meeting actually remarked, "Clearly there is no desire for discussion." It wasn't until the 1970s that Alzheimer's was recognized as a disease and not, as previously thought, just a hazard of aging. In 1980, a letter to the syndicated advice column "Dear Abby" sparked the public's interest. "Desperate in New York" wrote in to ask if Abby had ever heard of Alzheimer's, and if so, did she have any thoughts on how to handle it. The columnist told readers with similar questions to send them to the newly formed Alzheimer's Association, and more than 20,000 letters soon poured in.
3. Your Writing Style May Tell Researchers Something About Your Risk
The journals of your youth could offer a clue as to whether you'll develop the disease. In 1930, 20-year-old nuns were asked to write a few sentences that touched on their birthplace, parents, education, life events and why they joined the convent. Researchers tallied up their idea density, or how many different pieces of information, on average, were packed into each sentence and up to 60 years later, found that the lower the idea density, the higher the likelihood the writer would eventually develop Alzheimer's. Ninety percent of the nuns who developed Alzheimer's were found to have had low idea density in their youth compared with 13 percent of those who remained free of the disease.
4. Rita Hayworth Was the First Celebrity to Battle It in the Public Eye
New York's gossip scene was buzzing with the news that Hayworth's co-op was threatening to kick her out because fellow residents claimed she was constantly drunk. When a writer for the Daily News got wind that Hayworth was dealing with Alzheimer's, not alcoholism, he spoke with an Alzheimer's researcher then took the co-op board to task (in the newspaper, of course) for bungling the situation. Hayworth was diagnosed in 1979 and died of complications from the disease in 1987.
5. There's a Correlation Between Down Syndrome and Alzheimer's
And it has to do with genes. In the 1940s, a doctor found fewer neurons plus plaques and tangles in the brains of three Down syndrome patients, just as in those who suffer from Alzheimer's. Years later, a researcher at the University of Minnesota discovered that Alzheimer's patients had an unusually high number of relatives with Down syndrome—he expected to find 1 such connection per patient, but several in the group he studied had 6. Turns out a gene that leads to the release of amyloid beta (what plaques are made of) when a mutation occurs sits on chromosome 21, the same chromosome that Down syndrome patients have an extra copy of.
The information in this story comes from the book The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer's. Oprah.com is not responsible for its accuracy.