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What Is Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms contributing to a decline in memory, thinking, reasoning and social abilities. It’s progressive, and some people with dementia will need around-the-clock help at the end of their lives.

Fifty-five million people around the world have dementia, including 5.8 million in the United States. While only 1% of those ages 65 to 69 have it, the risk of being diagnosed doubles every five years between the ages of 65 and 84. One in four people over age 85 have dementia.

But breakthroughs in treatment and testing this year have given new hope to researchers like Don Weaver, a clinical neurologist and the director and senior scientist at the Krembil Research Institute at the University Health Network in Toronto. “There’s genuine room for optimism,” he says. “The research is moving at a faster pace than ever before.” That has come to fruition with new treatments, plus groundbreaking tests in the pipeline and more to come.

There are about a dozen different causes of dementia. The most common is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60% to 70% of dementia cases. While the cause of Alzheimer’s is not yet fully understood, researchers have been focusing on the malfunctioning of two specific brain proteins. The first, beta-amyloid proteins, are a normal part of the central nervous system, and are usually cleared out of the brain. In a brain with Alzheimer’s, however, these proteins are not properly cleared away. The protein clumps together in between neurons, creating deposits called amyloid plaques, which disrupt cell function.

The second type, tau proteins, are primarily found inside neurons. In people with Alzheimer’s, this protein, which normally assists in the transportation of nutrients throughout the brain, accumulates and becomes tangled inside the neuron. The buildup of these two proteins affects the ability of brain cells to communicate. Eventually they kill the cells, affecting a person’s ability to think and remember.

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