What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder which gradually destroys the ability to learn, reason, imagine and remember. The name Alzheimer’s comes from a German neurologist called Dr Alois Alzheimer, who in 1906 discovered abnormal clumps and irregular knots of brain cells in a woman, who had died of an unknown mental illness. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.
Alzheimer’s affects 1 in 20 people over the age of 65 and may also be known as senile dementia. Winston Churchill suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s attacks the brain cells causing them to become damaged and die, but no one really knows why this happens. However, you are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease once over the age of 65, if there is a family history of the disease or you suffer from Downs syndrome.
What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease?
Most people think of Alzheimer’s disease as just memory loss. However, people with Alzheimer’s experience many other problems. Warning signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s may include any of the following:
- Memory loss – people with Alzheimer’s begin to forget where they put things and can have problems remembering names and faces.
- Difficulty in performing everyday tasks – leaving the oven on or putting the milk in the oven instead of the fridge.
- Difficulty with mathematical skills – suddenly unable to recognise numbers and having trouble balancing a cheque book or counting money.
- Problems with speech – forgetting simple words and replacing them with the wrong words, making their sentences hard to understand.
- Disorientation – people with Alzheimer’s may get lost in their own street and not know how they got there or how to get home.
- Poor judgement – forgetting to wear a coat in cold weather.
- Changes in mood or behaviour – people with Alzheimer’s may experience rapid mood swings.
- Changes in personality – people with Alzheimer’s may become aggressive, paranoid and experience hallucinations.
In the later stages of the disease people with severe Alzheimer’s are unable to do anything for themselves and may become bedridden. They will need help eating, bathing and using the toilet. It will become increasingly difficult to communicate with them, as they lose the ability to talk and write.
Alzheimer’s disease varies from person to person. Some people with the illness may go on for 10 years or more, whereas for others it may progress more rapidly.
How is Alzheimer’s disease diagnosed?
Doctor’s are unable to diagnose Alzheimer’s with 100% certainty and diagnosis rests largely on the doctor’s judgment and the patient’s medical history. Tests that a doctor might carry out to help in their diagnosis, include:
- A physical examination.
- Memory and problem solving tests.
- A CT scan and/or a blood test to rule out any other possible causes.
Alzheimer’s disease can only be diagnosed 100% from a brain autopsy after the person has died. Most people with Alzheimer’s die from a secondary illness, such as pneumonia.
How is Alzheimer’s disease treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s though there are a few drugs available to lessen the symptoms and improve the quality of life of the patient. People with Alzheimer’s will need to visit their doctor on a regular basis, so that the doctor can check how the disease is progressing and treat any other illnesses that occur. The doctor can also provide support for the patient’s family.
Scientists have recently discovered several genes which, can be associated with Alzheimer’s and in time may lead to new treatments to stop progression of this complex disease.
Looking after someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
It can be very difficult caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s so the more you understand the illness the better. Here are a few tips that may help you care for someone with Alzheimer’s:
- Keep the home familiar and safe.
- Encourage moderate amounts of exercise when possible.
- Try to be patient – speak slowly and clearly when talking to loved ones and stand where you can be seen.
- Use body language to communicate using touch and plenty of smiles.
- Keep the person you are caring for clean and tidy, simple things like regular haircuts can help keep spirits up.
- If the person you are caring for tends to wander, ensure locks are installed to doors and have an identity bracelet made, with your name and phone number on.
For more information on caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, visit the Alzheimer’s Society website www.alzheimers.org.uk. A wide variety of care services are available in the UK, you can contact the Alzheimer’s Disease Society on 0845 300 0336 for help and advice.