Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. There are over half a million people in the UK with Alzheimer’s and it is the most common cause of dementia.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. This means that over time, more parts of the brain are damaged. As this happens, more symptoms will develop and also become more severe.
Alzheimer’s disease is most common in people over the age of 65. Although the risk of developing the disease increases with age, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of ageing. Up to 5% of people with Alzheimer’s developed it in their 40’s or 50’s.
The onset of Alzheimer’s is linked to a combination of factors. Conditions such as diabetes, stroke and heart problems, as well as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity in mid-life, are known to increase the risk. There are some cases of inherited Alzheimer’s, but these are rare and usually develop before the age of 65.
Here is a useful information video from the Alzheimer’s society, which we recommend viewing.
Alzheimer’s disease is caused by parts of the brain wasting away, which damages the structure of the brain and how it works. It is not known exactly what causes this process to begin.
During the course of the disease, proteins build up in the brain to form structures that reduce the effectiveness of healthy neurons, gradually destroying them. Over time, this damage spreads to other areas of the brain, including those responsible for processing thoughts and retaining memory. This leads to the loss of connections between nerve cells, and eventually to the death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are generally mild to start with, but they get worse over time and start to interfere with daily life. The earliest symptoms are usually memory lapses. In particular, difficulty recalling recent events and learning new information.
As Alzheimer’s progresses, communication, reasoning and orientation become more severely affected. Alzheimer’s patients can begin to develop behaviours that seem unusual or out of character, including agitation, calling out, repeating the same question, disturbed sleep patterns or aggression. The person will need more day-to-day support from those who care for them.
In the later stages, the sufferer may become much less aware of what is happening around them. They may have difficulties eating or walking without help, and become increasingly frail. Eventually, the person will need help with all their daily activities.
The speed of progression and life expectancy of a sufferer vary greatly. On average, people with Alzheimer’s disease live for 8-10 years after the first symptoms. However, this is dependent on how old the person was when they first developed Alzheimer’s.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease progress slowly, meaning that it can be difficult to recognise a problem. It is often the case that people believe their memory problems are simply a result of age. However, an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease gives the best chance to prepare and plan for the future, as well as receive any treatment that may help.
Anyone who is concerned that they may have Alzheimer’s disease should seek help from their GP to gain access to treatment, advice and support, as well as assisting in preparing for the future and planning ahead.
There is no single test for Alzheimer’s disease. GP’s will first rule out other conditions that can have similar symptoms. In most cases, a conversation and mental tests will be corroborated by a CT or MRI scan of the brain. This will show if parts of the brain tissue have shrunk. Any diagnosis should be communicated clearly to the person affected and to those closest to them, along with a discussion about the next steps.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but a lot that can be done to enable someone to live well with the condition. This will involve drug and non-drug care, support and activities.
The person should have a chance to talk to a professional about their diagnosis. Information on the support available, and where to go for further advice, is vital in helping someone to stay physically and mentally well.
Current drug treatments can temporarily alleviate some Alzheimer’s symptom, slowing down progression and memory problems, and improved concentration and motivation. If someone is depressed or anxious, talking therapies or drug treatments such as antidepressants may also be tried.
It is beneficial for a person with Alzheimer’s to keep up with activities they enjoy. As the Alzheimer’s worsens, it is important to help the sufferer enjoy more general activities, such as social interaction, music, reminiscence, exercise or other activities that are meaningful for the person.
Whilst there is no cure, scientists from around the world are looking for a cure. Here is a video from Taj Pharma which sets out the approach some are taking to find a cure.
As symptoms progress there are a number of stages of care. Including greater home support and respite care. Residential care may be required for some sufferers, but not to all, depending on personal circumstances.
If it becomes appropriate for the person to enter residential care, selecting the right home is a very important decision. There are many issues to be considered in order to find the right home. Some care homes are registered to provide personal care. This means that they will provide help with washing, dressing, eating etc.
In some home registered for personal care, staff will have received special training in dementia care. Other homes are registered to provide nursing care and will have a qualified nurse on duty 24 hours a day.
You can read more about different types of dementia below.