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How Does Alzheimer's Disease Affect the Brain?

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In statistics provided by the Alzheimer's Association's report, 2010 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures, 5.3 million people have the debilitating neurological condition Alzheimer's disease. Most patients have late onset Alzheimer's disease, which begins after the age of 60, though some people may have early onset Alzheimer's disease, which begins before the age of 60. MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, points out that the early onset type of Alzheimer's disease tends to progress at a rapid pace, causing severe problems in cognitive functions, such as memory, language, judgment and decision-making.

But how does Alzheimer's disease affect the brain? The disease causes numerous changes to the brain, such as alterations in size and the formation of plaques and tangles.

Plaques and Tangles

MedlinePlus notes that three types of plaques and tangles occur: senile plaques, neuritic plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. With the plaques, clusters of dying nerve cells form around protein; neuritic plaques involve the dying nerve cells, while the senile plaques involve the dying nerve cells' products. The type of protein involved in plaque formations is the beta-amyloid protein. The Alzheimer's Association points out that small groups of beta-amyloid protein “may block cell-to-cell signaling at synapses” and “activate immune system cells that trigger inflammation and devour disabled cells.”

With the tangles, pieces of protein become intertwined within the nerve cells. The type of protein involved in tangles is the tau protein. Normally, the tau protein helps keep a vital cell transportation's “tracks” straight, but in Alzheimer's disease, they become tangled, leading to the “tracks” falling apart. The Alzheimer's Association explains that with this transport system, cells cannot receive nutrients, leading to death.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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