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Diagram which shows Human Brain with Alzheimer's Disease  

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Alzheimer’s disease
is a progressive degenerative condition of the brain that affects memory, thought, reasoning and language. Eventually, patients may develop changes in personality and behavior and become unable to care for themselves. Most patients live about 8 to 10 years after their diagnosis, though some may live for as long as 20 years.

According to the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center and the Alzheimer’s Association, about 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. Risk increases with age. It affects one in ten of those over 65 and almost half of people over 85. With our aging population, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease could reach 11.3 to 16 million by 2050.

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Alzheimer research
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Current treatments aim to alleviate some of the symptoms, but are unable to halt the progression of the disease. Researchers are looking into better ways to diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps one day even finding a cure for the condition.

One of the studies involves brain imaging. Alzheimer’s patients have very characteristic changes in their brains, notably development of amyloid plaques (clumps of protein fragments) and neurofibrillary tangles (twisted fibers of a protein, called tau). The study is called the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) and is taking place at centers around the country.

ADNI will involve about 800 participants 55 to 90: 400 of them with mild cognitive impairment, 200 with early Alzheimer’s disease and 200 with healthy brains. The researchers will follow the participants every six months with magnetic resonance imaging, PET scans, lumbar puncture and blood tests. By comparing the results among the three groups of participants, investigators hope to find clues that will help them predict the onset of Alzheimer’s and monitor progression of the disease.

Another study investigates the role of cholesterol and copper in development of Alzheimer’s disease. Cholesterol appears to contribute to the development of plaques that “clog” the brain. However, in a study of rabbits fed a high cholesterol diet, researchers found the animals that drank distilled water tended not to develop the characteristic brain plaque. Further investigation found the distilled water didn’t contain the metal, copper. Since Alzheimer’s patients often have higher levels of copper in their blood, the scientists thought there might be a connection between copper and the development of amyloid plaque.

In a follow-up study, cholesterol-fed rabbits were divided into two groups. One group drank regular tap water and the other group drank only distilled water (which doesn’t contain copper). After ten weeks, the rabbits that drank the tap water developed more plaque and showed more signs of brain damage than those who drank the distilled water.

Researchers say all people have amyloid protein fragments in their brains. But healthy brains are able to break down and eliminate the excess, preventing build-up and plaque formation. Cholesterol appears to cause an overproduction of the amyloid protein fragments. Copper may inhibit the ability of the body to get rid of the excess fragments, causing them build up in the brain.

Scientists hope to one day be able to confirm their findings in humans. Although they stop short in recommending distilled water, they say people with high cholesterol levels may want to consider making the switch from tap water. Copper is still an important nutrient, so we can’t eliminate it entirely from our diets. However, most people get enough copper in their food sources.