Weekly Folding update

— 9:55 PM on January 13, 2005

Welcome back to the Folding update. This week, we're going to take a look at another nasty disease we're helping to fight when we Fold.

First, the weekly stats and links. No real Frankenbot news this week, so I'm going to use the extra space to spend more time on Alzheimer's.

Last week, we took a look at Parkinson's Syndrome. This week, we're going to learn a little about Alzheimer's Disease. As our life expectancy increases, Alzheimer's Disease is one of the greatest threats our society will face.

Alzheimer’s Disease is named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German physician who in 1906 performed an autopsy on a woman who had died after years of progressively worsening memory loss and dementia. During the autopsy, he discovered dense deposits around nerve cells in the brain and twisted fibers inside the cells. To this day, the only definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer's is to observe these conditions in an autopsy post-mortem. At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, although some drugs seem to slow the progress of the disease and lessen its symptoms. These symptoms include memory loss, confusion, hallucination and dementia, all of which worsen as time goes on. Alzheimer’s is the fourth leading cause of death among adults, and an estimated 4.5 million Americans have the disease. The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s has more than doubled since 1980, and as many 16 million Americans could have the disease by 2050. The cost of treating Alzheimer’s is more than $100 billion per year, with the average lifetime cost of care for afflicted individuals hovering around $175,000.

The cost of Alzheimer's goes far beyond mere dollars. More than seven out of ten people with Alzheimer’s disease live at home, where almost 75% of their care is provided by family and friends. The financial and emotional burden this places on both the sufferer and their caregivers is enormous as the patient gradually forgets almost all details of his life, failing to recognize spouses, children and other close friends and family. Since Alzheimer's is impossible to test for, many diagnoses are not made until the disease has advanced. However, estimates are that a person with Alzheimer's can expect anywhere from eight to 20 years of gradual descent into complete dementia. The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer's is age; one in ten people over age 65 and five of ten over age 85 are afflicted. There are rare, inherited forms of Alzheimer's that can strike an individual as young as 30.

One of the goals of the F@H project is to determine the role that mis-folded proteins play in the corruption of the nerve cells in the brain that causes Alzheimer's. The twisted fibers in the nerve cells are a consequence of the disease. It is also known that the deposits (plaque) around the cells is made up almost entirely of a single mis-folded protein. F@H is currently trying to determine if the plaque is also a consequence of the disease or if it is the cause of Alzheimer's. Either way, the answer to that question will be a huge step on the road toward fighting this devastating illness.

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