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Alzheimer's a Growing and Deadly Problem

Sat Jun 5, 2004

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Alzheimer's disease, which afflicted former president Ronald Reagan for at least a decade, is a growing problem across the United States and much of the developed world as more people live well into old age.

It now affects an estimated 5 million people in the United States alone, and experts predict that as many as 16 million Americans will have the disease by the year 2050.

Alzheimer's affects as many as 15 million people globally.

Fatal and incurable, Alzheimer's starts out as vague memory loss and progresses quickly. Patients lose their ability to find their way around, to recognize loved ones and eventually cannot care for themselves.

Reagan lived for 10 years after his diagnosis. A report in April showed that women newly diagnosed with Alzheimer's lived a median of 5.7 years and men lived 4.2 years -- about half what a person of the same age who did not have the disease would be expected to live.

In May, Reagan's wife Nancy made an impassioned appeal for controversial stem cell research, saying it could help find a cure for Alzheimer's, which had taken her husband "to a distant place where I can no longer reach him."

Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, wrote an essay in December 2003 expressing concern that some people might think Reagan was still mobile and active, despite his illness, because his family had guarded his privacy so zealously.

"But it would be a disservice to every family who has an Alzheimer's victim in their embrace to say any of that is true, and I don't believe my father would want us to lie," she wrote.

Treatments can help slow the progression of the disease but cannot cure it.

Named after German physician Alois Alzheimer who first described the condition in 1906, it is marked by plaques and tangles around and inside brain cells.

The plaques, sometimes described as tiny 'Brillo pads', are made up of a brain protein called beta amyloid. Another protein, called tau, becomes deformed and makes up the tangles inside nerve cells.

As the brain cells die, the brain shrinks and loses its wrinkly appearance.

Alzheimer's affects about 10 percent of people over the age of 65 and by the age of 85, half the population has it. It is the ninth leading cause of death among those aged 65 and older.

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