A Brief History of Alzheimer’s Disease
Defining Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) occurs when the brain cells responsible for memory and other functions start to die.
No one knows exactly what causes AD, and there’s no known cure. The risk of getting AD doubles every five years after age 65, according to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America.
AD First Described
AD is named after German doctor Alois Alzheimer. He described the symptoms of a patient known as Auguste D. in 1906. Those symptoms included memory loss, strange behavior, and shrinkage in the patient’s brain. Psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Dr. Alzheimer’s colleague, coined the term “Alzheimer’s disease” in a 1910 medical book.
Congress established the National Institute on Aging (NIA) as part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1974. The mission of the NIA is to better understand the nature of aging and to promote a greater quality of life among older adults. The NIA is also the federal government’s primary source for funding and conducting AD research.
AD’s Challenge Defined
In 1976, the neurologist Dr. Robert Katzman declared AD the most common form of dementia and a substantial public health challenge in an editorial. This brought awareness to the disease and helped launch many brain-related research projects through the NIH.
Jerome Stone and other members of AD family support groups met with the NIA in 1979. This group would go on to become what is now the Alzheimer’s Association. Stone became the association’s first president when it formed in 1980. The goals of the group were to:
- help provide services to families affected by AD
- push for more federal research on the disease
The main markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain are high amounts of two proteins: beta-amyloid and tau. Beta-amyloid was discovered in 1984. Two years later, tangles of tau were discovered in AD patients.
Both proteins may cause brain cell damage. Researchers don’t know yet if high levels of tau and beta-amyloid cause AD, or if they’re just symptoms of it.
First Drug Trial
The NIA and the Alzheimer’s Association teamed up with the Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Company (now known as Pfizer) in 1987. They started the first clinical trial of a drug designed to treat the symptoms of AD.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formally approved the drug tacrine in 1993. Four more Alzheimer’s drugs were approved during the next decade.
Former President Ronald Reagan announced that he had AD on November 5, 1994. He was 83. Reagan became one of the first well-known figures with the disease. His announcement drew greater public attention to the disease.
Many experts weighed in on the differences between usual age-related forgetfulness and AD. Reagan died in 2004 from pneumonia and complications from AD.
Genetic Study Begins
In 2003, the Alzheimer’s Association and the NIA started accepting people in the National Alzheimer’s Disease Genetic Study. The federal government funds the study.
Researchers take and store blood samples from people in families with more than one member with AD. The goal of the ongoing study is to find genes that may make someone more likely to get AD.
President Obama signed into law the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) in 2011. NAPA was the first law to outline a national strategy for research and care of people with AD. The act also addresses support for people caring for AD patients.
A year later, the National Alzheimer’s Plan was released. It set a goal of creating AD prevention methods by 2025.
- Major Milestones in Alzheimer’s and Brain Research. (2013). Alzheimer’s Association. Retrieved November 13, 2013, from http://www.alz.org/research/science/major_milestones_i_alzheimers.asp#first
- About Alzheimers’s: Statistics. (2013). Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2013, from http://www.alzfdn.org/AboutAlzheimers/statistics.html
- The Leader in Aging Research. (2013). National Institute on Aging. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2013, from http://www.nia.nih.gov/
- A Tribute to Robert Katzman. (2008). Alzheimer Research Forum. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2013, from http://www.alzforum.org/new/detail.asp?id=1929
- Alzheimer's Disease Genetics Study. (2002) National Institute on Aging. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2013, from http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/clinical-trials/alzheimers-disease-genetics-study