I’ve thought a lot about the Alzheimer’s that hit my mother and (probably) my maternal grandmother. Admittedly, Mom’s fight with the disease was compromised due her Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which severely limited the amount of oxygen she was able to get into her body. My grandmother, on the other hand, was in her 80s when she started showing signs of the disease. Her cognitive function slowly dwindled and, thanks to her hearty physical constitution, Grandma lived on for many years.
Grandma’s procession is like many older people who develop this form of dementia. However, those who are younger do not face the same rate of decline. A new study out of the University of California at San Diego found that people who first experience symptoms of Alzheimer’s when they are in their 60s or 70s often have a more aggressive decline than those who have the disease when they are in their 80s.
In this study, researchers analyzed data from 723 people who had participated in the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative study. These participants, who were between the ages of 65 and 90, were tested every 6-12 months. Some had normal cognitive functioning, while others had either mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers’ analysis found that younger Alzheimer’s patients’ mental abilities and loss of brain tissue declined faster when compared with the results from older people who had this disease. Furthermore, an accelerated increase in a spinal-fluid indicator of Alzheimer’s was seen in the younger age group as opposed to the older group.
“The researchers aren't sure why Alzheimer's is more aggressive in younger patients,” a story on MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine reported. “One explanation might be that the older patients have been declining at that slower rate over a longer time, with some unknown factor keeping symptoms at bay, they [researchers] suggest.” The researchers also hypothesize that the older patients may also have another form of dementia that may negate the total impact that Alzheimer’s has on the brain.
One potential outcome from these findings is that some doctors may be hesitant to diagnosis the elderly with Alzheimer’s. “Patients typically show marked deterioration year after year. If older patients are not showing the same deterioration from one year to the next, doctors may be hesitant to diagnose AD, and thus these patients may not receive appropriate care, which can be very important for their quality of life,” Dr. Dominic Holland, who served as lead researcher, was quoted as saying by PsychCentral.com.
A second potential outcome of this study could be reflected in clinical trials designed to halt the march of this disease. “Our findings show that inclusion of older individuals in clinical trials will substantially reduce the power to detect disease-modifying therapeutic effects, leading to dramatic increases in required clinical trial sample sizes with age of study sample,” the UCSD researchers stated.