The brains of normal elderly people atrophy at a rate of 1 percent per year, says Rafii. For patients with Alzheimer's, atrophy can occur five times as fast, meaning that over five years, Alzheimer's patients can lose one quarter of their memory-saving neurons.
Neuronal loss translates into the inability to remember recent events, to recognize faces of family or friends or to find words to communicate. The memories of a lifetime that have shaped personality and created bonds are lost. In late stages, the brain forgets how to maintain the body, as essential functions of life like eating and breathing are literally forgotten. The disease leaves no survivors, and the path to death makes it the second most feared diagnosis, only to cancer.
Unfortunately, immunotherapy may not represent the holy grail of Alzheimer's treatments, since it can't help those that progress to more severe forms of the disease -- people like Jim -- because once a neuron dies, it dies for good. But these drugs may be able to slow down how quickly the disease progresses if caught early enough, which could help the millions of people in the earlier stages of the disease.
Linda Fisher remembers her husband as the young man who used to play love songs on the guitar, the war hero who would discuss life and life's mysteries over a cup of coffee. Her husband died from Alzheimer's disease seven years ago, roughly 10 years after his diagnosis. The ultimate cause of his death was what doctors call a failure to thrive, a state in which his brain was unable to remember even the basics of maintaining his existence.
His story is that of Alzheimer's disease of the this generation; even now, the only drugs readily available to treat this disease only cover up disease progression by improving the symptoms of dementia. In these patients, the brain is still dying.
For now, doctors can only hope that the new generation of Alzheimer's treatments comes soon enough to save those yet to be touched by this dreadful disease.