What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. These symptoms occur when the brain is damaged by certain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease, named after the doctor who first described it (Alois Alzheimer), is a physical disease that influences the brain. Presently there are more than 520, 000 people in the UK with Alzheimer’s disease. During the course of the condition, proteins build up in the brain to form structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. This causes the loss of contacts between nerve cells, and eventually to the fatality of nerve cells and loss of brain muscle. People with Alzheimer’s also have a deficit of some important chemicals in their brain. These chemical messengers help to transmit signals around the brain. When there is a shortage of them, the signals are not transmitted as effectively.
While Alzheimer’s progresses, problems with memory loss, communication, thought and orientation become more severe. The person will need more day-to-day support from those who care for them.
Some people start to imagine things that are not true (delusions) or – less often – see or hear things which are definitely not there (hallucinations).
A large number of individuals with Alzheimer’s also develop behaviors that seem to be strange or out of figure. These include agitation (e.g. restlessness or pacing), calling out, repeating the same question, disturbed sleep patterns or reacting aggressively. Such behaviors can be distressing or challenging for the person and their career. They may require separate treatment and management to memory problems.
In the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease someone may become much less aware of what is going on around them. They may have difficulties eating or walking without help, and become increasingly frail. Eventually, the person will need aid in all their daily activities.
How quickly Alzheimer’s disease progresses, and the life expectancy of someone with it, vary greatly. On average, people who have Alzheimer’s disease live for eight to five years after the first symptoms. However, this differs a lot, depending especially how old the person was when they first developed Alzheimer’s.
Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
The same as the rest of our body, our brains change as we age. Most of us eventually notice some slowed thinking and irregular problems with remembering certain things. However, serious memory loss, confusion and other major changes in the way our minds work may be an indication that brain cells are failing.
The most frequent early indicator of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information because Alzheimer’s changes typically get started in fault the brain that influences learning. As Alzheimer’s advances through the brain it causes increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood and tendencies changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory damage and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
People with memory space loss or other possible signs of Alzheimer’s may find it tough to recognize they have a problem. Indications of dementia may be more clear to family members or friends. Anyone experiencing dementia-like symptoms should see a doctor as quickly as possible.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition, which means the symptoms develop gradually and become more severe over the course of several years. It affects multiple brain functions.
The first sign of Alzheimer’s disease is usually small memory problems. For example, this can be forgetting about recent conversations or events, and forgetting the names of places and objects.
As the condition develops, memory problems become more severe and further symptoms can develop, such as:
- Misunderstandings, disorientation and achieving lost in familiar places
- Difficulty planning or making decisions
- Problems with speech and terminology
- Problems moving around without assistance or performing self-care tasks
- Personality changes, such as becoming aggressive, stressful and suspicious of others
- Hallucinations (seeing or ability to hear things that aren’t there) and delusions (believing things that are untrue)
- Low mood or anxiety
Who gets Alzheimer’s disease?
A lot of people who develop Alzheimer’s disease do so after the age of 65, but people under this age group can also develop it. This is called early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, a type of young-onset dementia. In the UK there are over 40, 000 people under the age of 65 with dementia.
Developing Alzheimer’s disease is connected to a combo of things, explained in more fine detail below. Some of these risk factors (e.g. lifestyle) can be controlled, but others (e.g. age and genes) cannot.
Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s. The disease mainly affects people over 65. Above this age, a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles approximately every five years. One in six people over 80 have dementia.
For reasons which are not clear, there are about twice as many women as men over 65 with Alzheimer’s disease. This difference is not fully explained by the simple fact that women on average live longer than men. It may be that Alzheimer’s in women is linked to a lack of the body hormone estrogen after the perimenopause.
Many people fear that the disease may be passed down to them from a parent or grandparent. Researchers are investigating the hereditary background to Alzheimer’s. There are several families with a very clear inheritance of Alzheimer’s from a single generation to the next. In such family members the dementia is likely to develop well before age 66. However, Alzheimer’s disease that is so strongly handed down is quite rare.
In the vast majority of people, the influence of genetics on risk of Alzheimer’s disease is much subtler. A number of genes are known to increase or reduce a person’s chances of developing Alzheimer’s. For someone with a close relative (parent or sibling) who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when over 65, their own risk of developing the disease is increased. However, this does not mean that Alzheimer’s is inevitable, and everyone can reduce their risk by living a healthy lifestyle.
Health and lifestyle
Health conditions such as diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular system problems, as well as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity in mid-life, are known to improve the risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Anyone can reduce their risk by keeping these under control. Major depression is a probable risk factor for dementia; getting it treated early is important.
People who choose a healthy lifestyle, especially from mid-life onwards, are less more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, taking regular physical exercise and keeping to a healthy weight, not smoking, eating a healthy balanced diet and drinking only in small amounts.
How Alzheimer’s disease is treated
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but medicine is available that can help relieve several of the symptoms and stop up the progression of the condition in certain people.
Various other types of support are also available to help people with Alzheimer’s live as independently as possible, such as making changes to your home environment so it’s easier to move around and remember daily tasks.
Psychological treatments such as cognitive stimulation therapy may also be offered to help support your memory, problem solving skills and language ability.