Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia in the UK with more than 520,000 people in the UK having dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition, which means the symptoms develop gradually over many years and eventually become more severe. It affects multiple brain functions.
The risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia increases with age, affecting an estimated 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 and 1 in every 6 people over the age of 80. .
In This Section
What is Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain. When the brain is damaged it causes a decline in brain functionality resulting in memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language all of which are a set of symptoms that are known as Dementia.
The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells that connect to each other. In Alzheimer’s disease, connections between these cells are lost. This is because proteins build up and form abnormal structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. Eventually nerve cells die and brain tissue is lost.
The brain also contains important chemicals that help to send signals between cells. People with Alzheimer’s have less of some of these ‘chemical messengers’ in their brain, so the signals are not passed on as well. There are some drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease that can help boost the levels of some chemical messengers in the brain. This can help with some of the symptoms. [source]
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not yet fully understood, although a number of things are thought to increase your risk of developing the condition such as increasing age, a family history of the condition, untreated depression & lifestyle factors.
It is thought that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the abnormal build-up of proteins in and around brain cells. One of the proteins involved is called amyloid, deposits of which form plaques around brain cells. The other protein is called tau, deposits of which form tangles within brain cells.
Although it’s not known exactly what causes this process to begin, scientists now know that it begins many years before symptoms appear.
As brain cells become affected, there’s also a decrease in chemical messengers (called neurotransmitters) involved in sending messages, or signals, between brain cells. Levels of one neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, are particularly low in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Over time, different areas of the brain shrink. The first areas usually affected are responsible for memories.
No two people will experience Alzheimer’s in the same way. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition, which means the symptoms develop gradually over many years and eventually become more severe. It affects multiple brain functions with the first signs of the disease usually starting with minor memory problems.
As the condition develops, memory problems become more severe and further symptoms can develop, such as:
- confusion, disorientation and getting lost in familiar places.
- difficulty planning or making decisions
- problems with speech and language
- problems moving around without assistance or performing self-care tasks
- personality changes, such as becoming aggressive, demanding and suspicious of others hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there) and delusions (believing things that are untrue)
- low mood or anxiety
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there is a lot that can be done to enable someone to live well with the condition which may include drug treatments or care and support without drugs.
Psychological treatments such as cognitive stimulation therapy may also be offered to help support memory, problem solving skills and language ability.
People with Alzheimer’s disease can live for several years after they start to develop symptoms. But this can vary considerably from person to person as the disease is a life-limiting illness, and many people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will die from another cause. As the disease progresses, it can cause problems with swallowing which may also lead to chest infections and reduced appetite.
Alzheimer’s disease will possibly lead to the need for palliative care, both as support for families, as well as the person with Alzheimer’s.
To reduce or delay the onset of Dementia you can:
- Stop smoking
- Cut down on alcohol
- Eat a balanced diet
- maintain a healthy weight
- Stay physically fit
- Remain mentally active
When to see a doctor
An accurate and timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can give you the best chance to prepare and plan for the future, as well as receive any treatment or support that may help. If you’re worried about your memory or think you may have dementia, it’s a good idea to see your GP.
There’s no single test that can be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease but if your doctor suspects you have Alzheimer’s you may be referred to a specialist service to look at your symptoms in more detail, further tests such as brain scans and to create a treatment and care plan.
- Alzheimer’s disease is not a natural part of ageing
- Alzheimer’s disease is caused by diseases of the brain
- It’s not just about losing your memory
- People can still live well with Alzheimer’s disease
- Alzheimer’s Society is available for anyone affected by dementia
NHS sources other references
You can read more about Alzheimer’s by visiting the follwing websites.
Word from our GP
I cannot emphasize how important it is to see your GP if you have any concerns as many cases will not be Alzheimer’s.
If it does prove to be the case then early intervention for both patients and their families is crucial.
Dr Anthony Crane, Pencoed Medical Centre
Click here to read our interview with Dr Crane on what you need to know about Dementia if you think you or a loved one may be affected.