Alzheimer’s diseaseis the most common type of dementia. It is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually starts slowly and gets progressively worse over time.
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is short-term memory loss, where sufferers have difficulty remembering recent events. As the disease advances other symptoms will become apparent such as disorientation, mood swings, language problems, loss of motivation, behavioural issues and not managing self-care. As the sufferer’s condition gets worse they may withdraw from friends, family and society in general. At the worst stage of Alzheimer’s, control over bodily functions is lost and it will ultimately lead to death.
Effects on the brain
When diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, doctors will often look at images of the brain, using CT or MRI scans, to check for the usual brain alterations synonymous with the disease. Alzheimer’s causes plaques or tangles on the brain and also causes brain tissue to deteriorate. Extreme shrinkage of the cerebralcortex and of the Hippocampus is seen in Alzheimer’ssufferers, as is an enlargement of the ventricles.
Causes and risk factors
What causes people to develop Alzheimer’s is still relatively unknown. One popular theory is that it is genetic. Around 70% of the risk is believed to be genetic with many genes believed to be involved. Individuals who have a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have an increased risk of the developing the disease themselves. People who have Down’s syndrome are at a particular risk of Alzheimer’s due to a difference in their genetic makeup. Other risk factors include head injuries, depression or hypertension.
Age is another risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s. The disease mainly affects people over the age of 65, but can develop in a person younger. A person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years when they are over 65. One in six people over the age of 80 have developed the disease.
Gender is also a risk factor for the disease. For reasons that are not yet clearly understood, twice as many women as men over the age of 65 have diagnosed Alzheimer’s. One possible explanation for this is that Alzheimer’s in women could be linked to the lack of oestrogen present after the menopause.
The risk of Alzheimer’s is also increased by medical conditions such as diabetes, stroke and heart problems. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity are other known risk factors. By keeping these conditions under control, an individual can reduce their risk of developing the disease. Leading an active lifestyle, especially from mid-life onwards, can also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s developing. Eating well, not smoking and drinking in moderation can also lower the risk.
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease and the life expectancy of a sufferer is likely to be between three and nine years from diagnosis. There are however, certain drug treatments that can help to ease the symptoms of the disease to make living with Alzheimer’s that little bit easier. Pharmaceutical treatments can include drugs to help with memory loss, challenging behaviour, anxiety and depression.
Cognitive behavioural therapies and counselling can help an individual come to terms with their diagnosis and also can help to alleviate some of the symptoms of the disease. After diagnosis, an individual should be able to have a good chat with their GP to get a full understanding of what their diagnosis means and what to expect from the future.
There are many practical ways to help someone living with Alzheimer’s. Developing a routine is a good way to help with memory loss or confusion. Reminders such as weekly pillboxes, electronic reminders and calendar clocks can all aid someone with memory loss while maintaining their independence.
It is important for anyone suffering with Alzheimer’s to stay as social and active as possible. It is beneficial to keep up activities that the individual enjoys or to keep the mind active with puzzles or reading. There is evidence that attending sessions designed to aid people to keep mentally active helps those with Alzheimer’s. Activities such as life story work can help memory, mood and improve general wellbeing as the individual reminisces about their life.
As the disease worsens, sufferers will experience a change in their behaviour. Mood swings, agitation and aggression will increase as they struggle to cope with everyday life and the grip of the disease. Eventually it may be beneficial to employ a qualified carer to offer help to the sufferer and family members, as the individual begins to lose control of their bodily functions and stops taking care of themselves. A domestic carer can help the individual keep some independence and stay at home while offering relief to family members and primary carers.
Alzheimer’s is a debilitating disease to live with, for both the sufferer and their family. It is important to seek help if you suspect that you or someone you love may be experiencing the early signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia, as an early diagnosis is very important if quality of life is to be maintained.