My family decided to have a brain autopsy performed after my mother’s death. We wanted to be sure that her thirteen year struggle with dementia was definitely from Alzheimer’s, and we also felt donating to further Alzheimer’s research was the right thing to do under the circumstances. The results we received were overwhelmingly conclusive. My mother did in fact have Alzheimer’s disease. While we all knew this and it certainly came as no surprise, I was still greatly saddened to see the cold, clinical terms presented impersonally on a white sheet of paper as if my mother was just another statistic. She wasn’t just another Alzheimer’s victim to us obviously, and this autopsy report reads like a tragic love story of tormenting tangles and painful plaques leading to a heartbreaking finale. Here are the highlights from the brain autopsy confirming my mother’s diagnosis of “consistent with Alzheimer’s disease with a high likelihood.”
1) High likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease (the highest rating on a scale of 3 from low, intermediate, to high by NIA-Reagan criteria method – high means Braak tangles in stage V or VI and CERAD plaque grade of frequent)
2) and 3) Subacute Infarcts (evidence of stroke was found, but according to the autopsy these happened within the last couple months of life and didn’t cause the dementia)
4) Diffuse arteriolosclerosis – hardened and narrowed arteries all throughout brain likely from long-term high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels
Braak tangle stage VI (the highest stage on a scale of 6, meaning the most tangles seen for Alzheimer’s), CERAD plaque grade frequent (the highest of 3 grades – infrequent, moderate and frequent)
Brain weight 970 grams (normal brain weight for women is 1265 grams, so 23% of brain weight lost to atrophy)
Question for discussion: Do you think you would want or need a brain autopsy to confirm Alzheimer’s disease after the death of a loved one?
Image courtesy National Institute on Aging