Apr 10, 2013

The Coming Alzheimer’s Tsunami

When it hits, the Alzheimer's tsunami will cause havoc and destruction, and will probably do so suddenly. The longer we wait, the more intense and more devastating the effects will be.

By Max Wallack
Alzheimer's Reading Room

The Coming Alzheimer’s Tsunami

Perhaps you have heard the oncoming increase in Alzheimer's cases referred to as an impending tsunami. Have you ever stopped to think about what this means?

"Tsunami"  is a Japanese word that refers to what were once called a "tidal wave" in English. A tsunami begins with an undersea disturbance such as an earthquake, resulting in a buildup of water pressure.

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The water pressure very forcefully causes a massive swelling of the water surface several meters high and thousands of kilometers wide, radiating out in all directions.

At any given point on the sea surface, the change may not be easily noticed. However, as it approaches land, the tsunami rapidly grows in intensity.

One reason for this growth is that, the closer the tsunami gets, the more shallow the water depth becomes, building up greater pressure as the flow of water becomes increasingly restricted.

When the tsunami hits shore, it comes on suddenly, with little or no warning. Within less than a minute, the water level mysteriously drops, then a great tidal wave as high as a tall building suddenly comes crashing in, carelessly tossing cars, trucks, trains, and houses inland and scattering them about.

Nothing natural or man made can stop the fury of a tsunami; nothing is left standing in its wake; everything is swept away by a great wall of water.

In most of the world, the increasing prevalence of Alzheimer's disease is building up slowly, just like a tsunami far out in the midst of the ocean.

Progress in medicine and public health has increased the human lifespan nearly everywhere, but the effects are even more dramatic in the non-industrial world, where the average lifespan has nearly doubled in the last few decades.

As populations increase, people are also living longer, so the number of people above age 60 is the most rapidly growing segment of most human populations. The result is that the number of Alzheimer's cases increases even more rapidly than the growth in population.

In the industrial world, an equally dramatic rise in the number of people living past 80 years of age portends an equally dramatic change. In the near future, nearly everyone may live old enough to develop Alzheimer's disease.

Because Alzheimer's patients become utterly dependent upon a system of very intense and increasingly intensive care, the impending tsunami of Alzheimer's cases may well become a threat to the financial stability of the health care system.

In most industrialized countries, the fraction of the population that is working and paying taxes is slowly shrinking, while the fraction who are older and in need of care keeps rising, especially for conditions like Alzheimer's.

The effects are not yet immediate, nor are they noticeable yet to the average citizen, but all the signs of an impending financial disaster are beginning to grow.

People who ignore a growing tsunami far out at sea do so at their own peril, because the tsunami will grow in intensity and in destructive force as it comes closer.

When it hits, the tsunami will cause havoc and destruction, and will probably do so suddenly. The longer we wait, the more intense and more devastating the effects will be. We must therefore plan ahead for the coming of this irresistible onslaught of an Alzheimer's tsunami.

In countries where destructive tsunami’s have occurred, many “early warning” systems have been employed. Escapes routes have been planned.

Yet, too many of us sit around oblivious of the Alzheimer’s tsunami. We need to plan now.

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Max Wallack
Max Wallack is a student at Boston University and a Research Intern in the Molecular Psychiatry and Aging Laboratory in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Boston University School of Medicine.  His great grandmother, Gertrude, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Max is the founder of  PUZZLES TO REMEMBER. PTR is a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and veterans institutions that care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients.

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