Alzheimer's: The Silent Killer


It's one of the deadliest diseases of our time, and the number of people affected by Alzheimer's -- one of the most common forms of dementia -- is growing rapidly.

An estimated 5.4 million Americans have the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association, and experts anticipate that number will grow to over 13 million by 2050.

Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the only cause of death that can't be prevented, cured or slowed; and every 68 seconds, another person contracts the crippling illness.

But exactly what causes Alzheimer's still has experts baffled.

"We still don't know everything that we need to know about the disease, but there are pieces that we do know" Alexandra Dillon, associate director of the Alzheimer's Association, said. "One part of the disease that we do know is that there is a plaque that builds on the nerve cells, and it kills the nerve cells."

And eventually, the victim loses their ability to think, talk, walk and even swallow.

Alzheimer's is one of five major dementia syndromes, usually affecting elderly people age 65 and up, and the highest risk factor, experts say, is something we can't control.

"The highest risk factor is age -- something we can't do anything about," Dillon said, "And then you put on top of that that we have an aging baby boomer population, so we have a very significant number of people who are approaching 65 and are passing 65, when the risk increases."

And once people reach the age of 85, their chances of getting Alzheimer's skyrocket.

"We have this disease that we still don't have enough information about how to stop it or how to prevent it," Dillon said, "And we have a huge influx of people who are now very, very vulnerable because of their age to contracting the disease."

Scientists are searching for answers, but so far, there's no drug that slows Alzheimer's, delays the onset or cures it.

"There are some medications that you could use to help with the side effects" Amy Stump, nurse practitioner of gerontology, said. "[But] it won't prevent the Alzheimer's, because it's a slow decline in the memory process."

But for Dillon, who has made it her goal to find a cure for the disease, every medical breakthrough brings another glimmer of hope.

"I think we're living in a phenomenal time right now," she said. "I think in the course of this disease, this is a very exciting time -- the information that researchers are identifying, the awareness that's surfacing -- I think we're living through one of the most exciting times in terms of this disease and the possibilities for creating change."