A progressive deterioration in mental ability due to degeneration of brain tissue.
Age: more common over the age of 65
Genetics: sometimes runs in families
It is normal to become mildly forgetful with increasing age, but severe impairment of short-term memory may be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. In this disorder, brain cells gradually degenerate and deposits of an abnormal protein build up in the brain. As a result, the brain tissue shrinks, and there is a progressive loss of mental abilities, known as dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. In developed countries, the condition affects about 7 in 100 people by the age of 85. Sometimes, younger people are affected. The underlying cause of the tissue destruction is unknown, although genetic factors may be involved. Studies have found that 15 in 100 people with Alzheimer’s disease have a parent affected with the disorder.
What are the symptoms?
The first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is usually forgetfulness. The normal deterioration of memory that occurs in old age becomes much more severe and begins to affect intellectual ability. Memory loss is eventually accompanied by other symptoms which include:
- Poor concentration
- Difficulty in understanding written and spoken language
- Wandering and getting lost, even in familiar surroundings.
In the early stages of the disease, people are usually aware that they have become more forgetful. This may lead to depression and anxiety. Over a longer period, the existing symptoms may develop. These may include:
- Slow movements and unsteadiness when walking
- Rapid mood swings from happiness to tearfulness
- Personality changes, aggression and feelings of persecution
Sometimes people find it difficult to sleep and become restless at night. After several years, most people with the disease cannot look after themselves and need full-time care.
How is it diagnosed?
There is no single test that can be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. The doctor will discuss the symptoms with the affected person and his or her family. Tests may be arranged to exclude other possible causes of dementia. For example, blood tests may be carried out to check for vitamin B deficiencies, CT scanning, PET scanning, or MRI may be carried out to exclude other brain disorders, much as multi-infarct dementia, subdural haemorrhage, or a brain tumour. An assessment of mental ability, which may include memory and writing tests, may be used to determine the severity of the dementia.
What is the medical treatment?
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but drugs such as donepezil may slow the loss of mental function in mild to moderate cases. Some of the symptoms that are sometimes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, such as depression and sleeping problems, can be relieved by antidepressant drugs. A person who is agitated may be given a sedative to calm them down.
Eventually, full-time care may be necessary, either at home or in a nursing home. Caring for a person who has Alzheimer’s disease is often stressful, and carers need practical and emotional support, especially if the affected person starts to become hostile and aggressive. Support groups can help a person to cope with caring for the elderly relative with the disease. Most people with Alzheimer’s disease survive for up to 10 years from the time pf diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s disease is probably the most dreaded cause of memory loss. Despite extensive research, its cause remains unknown. What is known is that it involves the irreversible and widespread loss of brain cells.