The History of Alzheimer's

National Alzheimer’s and Brain Health Awareness Month

June is National Alzheimer’s and Brain Health Awareness Month

This week I wanted to share with you some information about the origins of the concept of Alzheimer’s Disease, and some history about the doctor and patient who served as the catalyst for future discoveries regarding dementia and brain health.

Below is a link to a fascinating article which gives a detailed history of the etymology and history of dementia, perceptions on dementia in the past, and the historical developments leading to the terminology of Alzheimer's disease. We hear so often about Alzheimer’s disease, but few know the origin of its developments.

I wanted to share with you some of my favorite points of interest in the article and provide the link for you to do a deeper dive if you wish.

“Emil Kraepelin (1856–1926), a doctor in Germany, classified dementia into senile dementia and presenile dementia in 1910. He was the first to name the disease as ‘Alzheimer's disease’, after Alois Alzheimer (1864–1915), who discovered pathological features of presenile dementia while his student.

In 1486, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) was published by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger who were priests of the Dominican order in the Roman Catholic Church. This book contained the criteria to identify witches, instructions and methods for trial and execution of a sentence, as a textbook of a witch hunt approved by Pope Innocent VIII. It was revised dozens of times and spread throughout the world in various languages. Hundreds of thousands have been burned dreadfully at the stake since the book was published.

People designated as witches according to the criteria defined in the ‘Hammer of the Witches’, were mainly mental patients, and most of them were women with symptoms such as paranoia, mania, schizophrenia, epilepsy and senile dementia. For no other reason than their mental instability, they became victims of a witch hunt and a great number of people across Europe were burned to ashes on the rack.

Owing to poor understanding of dementia even in current day, the social stigma is marked, and the patients who fear the stigma cannot aggressively seek treatment, leading to delay in diagnosis and treatment. Therefore, preventing the social stigma is a good starting point to overcome dementia, and the first step to improve the quality of life of the patients and their family. Awareness of the phenomenon of dementia is a key requirement to eliminate the social stigma.”

“Alois Alzheimer was born in Marktbreight, a small Bavarian city in southern Germany on June 14th 1864. Alzheimer showed a remarkable talent in science, and was trained in medical schools of Berlin, Tubingen, and Wurzburg University. He showed enthusiasm for observation of microtissues through a microscope and anatomy. In 1887, he graduated with honors from Wurzburg medical school.

Alzheimer was first presented with Auguste Deter, a female patient aged 51 years, in the Frankfurt mental hospital on November 25th 1901. She showed several abnormal behaviors such as short-term amnestic disorder, disorientation and dysphrasia. Alzheimer studied her symptoms thoroughly for years.

‘Auguste’ was born into a working-class family of Kassel, Germany on May 16th 1850. Her father of four children was dead when Auguste was very young. Although the family was very poor, she was relatively well educated. At the age of 14, Auguste began work as a seamstress assistant.

In March 1901, 28 years following her marriage to Karl, Auguste showed uncontrollable behavior.

She abruptly accused her husband of adultery. Delusion had begun; and subsequently, her memory decreased rapidly. She was careless with the housework, hid items intentionally, and incomprehensively lost her ability to cook properly. She experienced problems in writing and serious alteration was detected in usual conversation. Insomnia manifested, her sense of direction was lost. She dragged a bed sheet outside, wandered around wildly, and she cried for hours at midnight. Her condition deteriorated rapidly, and she became restlessly boisterous, threatened neighbors with a horrible shriek, and started to doubt every movement of complete strangers for no reason.

Karl took Auguste to a hospital, and a doctor decided that she could not work anymore due to symptoms such as memory impairment, mania, insomnia, and agitation and recommended admission into a mental hospital.

Alzheimer summarized in detail the process and aspects of the memory decline in her medical records. He described her symptoms as progressive cognitive disorder, local neurological symptom, hallucination, delusion, and psychological social disability.

Finally, she lost all cognitive ability, and succumbed to septicemia and pneumonia on April 8th 1906. She was 55 years old at the time. The brain of the patient was sent from Frankfurt to Munich together with the medical records. Alzheimer set to conduct a biopsy of her brain immediately.

He found that the cerebral cortex was generally thinned. The region that controlled memory, language, judgement, and thinking was severely impaired. Senile plaques were formed in neurons, and tangles were found in nerve fibers. At the time, the consensus among medical doctors was that senile plaque could be found in 70-year-old patients, while occurrence of neurofibrillary tangles was a new observation. Considering her age, both findings were exceptional.

Alzheimer was not well acknowledged in those days owing to his position of anatomist, but today, he is remembered for his remarkable legacies to the field of modern neuropathology. The most remarkable achievement was to investigate anatomical lesions associated with clinical symptoms, because cerebral phenomena were not typically approached from such a perspective and viewpoint at the time.”


I hope you found the history of this disease to be insightful. Please share with your family and friends if you found this information useful and interesting. The better understanding that society has regarding Alzheimer’s disease, the better we can promote active treatment by eliminating the social stigma through a proper education on dementia.

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