Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting over half of all dementia sufferers.
Reviewed by Tim Beanland
Alzheimer’s is one of those diseases that we all fear for both ourselves and our loved ones in old age. Sadly, it’s one of the most common forms of dementiaand can progress pretty rapidly.
So, what exactly is Alzheimer’s, and how do you know if someone has it? We look at the symptoms, treatment and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease:
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting over half of all those living with dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a loss of brain cells, probably related to an imbalance in the chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in the brain.
Alzheimer’s disease tends to progress, deteriorate and lead to death within 7 to 10 years. However, the progression of the illness varies a lot between individuals. For some, the illness may progress slowly over many years, whereas for others it may progress rapidly.
Alzheimer’s disease symptoms
Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently, but over time the person’s mental abilities progressively deteriorate. Day-to-day memory loss is often the first sign but the person may also become confused about where they are and what day it is. Someone with Alzheimer’s may become irritable, lethargic or withdrawn and start to neglect personal hygiene.
Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently, but over time the person’s mental abilities deteriorate.
The sufferer may tend to dwell in the past and mistake friends and neighbours for long-departed family members. Conversation may become repetitive and the personality may alter as people develop odd or uncharacteristic behaviours. In many cases such behaviours are best seen as the person communicating distress about their environment or care, rather than as a direct symptom of the disease.
In the later stages of the illness, sufferers lose insight and may not be aware of their plight, which makes the disease particularly hard for carers to bear.
Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis
A number of other treatable medical conditions can mimic Alzheimer’s disease. These include thyroid problems, infections, vitamin deficiencies, depression and anxiety.
It is vital that any elderly person who is concerned about whether they may be getting Alzheimer’s disease sees their family doctor and receives a full medical assessment. This may involve seeing a hospital specialist and having a brain scan.
A number of other treatable medical conditions can mimic Alzheimer’s disease.
Never assume that an old person who becomes forgetful will have Alzheimer’s disease. For the majority of old people, mild forgetfulness is simply a nuisance, and most will not develop Alzheimer’s disease. Other treatable medical conditions must be excluded before a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is made.
Alzheimer’s disease treatment
Treatment is aimed at supporting patients and carers by providing information about the illness and highlighting potential sources of assistance:
✔️ Non-drug approaches include talking therapies, cognitive stimulation, reminiscence therapy and life story work. The person should remain physically, mentally and socially active as well as eating well and having regular check-ups of their physical health.
✔️ Attending a memory cafe, Singing for the Brain, or joining a carer support group can also be very helpful. Physical exercise in particular is beneficial.
✔️ Depression, poor sleep, agitation and behavioural disturbance can all be treated. In many cases non-drug support and treatments should be offered before drugs are used.
✔️ Support for the carer may also involve respite care to give them a break from their often demanding routine. This may involve the patient going to a day centre, or day hospital. Later, it may be helpful for the patient to go into a nursing home for a short stay to allow the carer to recharge their batteries.
✔️ Treatments like donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Reminyl) and rivastigmine (Exelon) are now available and have modest beneficial effects for some patients. All these medicines act on the chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in the brain. Those with moderate or advanced Alzheimer’s may also benefit from memantine (Ebixa). All these drugs should be prescribed and then monitored by a specialist.