As we get older we all get a bit forgetful. We might know someone well, but forget their name when we meet them. If these lapses become more serious – for example we forget not just the person’s name but who they are – then this may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease tends to develop very slowly, starting with problems over recent memory, language use and perhaps a change in personality. It will then progress, but many people with Alzheimer’s can lead good and fulfilling lives for years after diagnosis, and there are now treatments to help with the condition.
At first you may not even realise anything is wrong. The disease usually starts slowly, progressing over many years. Each case is unique, but among the symptoms are:
- memory loss, particularly of recent events
- less interest in hobbies and pastimes
- difficulty with thinking flexibly and solving problems
- difficulty finding the right words and following conversations
- trouble with recognising people or places
- changes in personality and behaviour
What causes it?
Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be caused by the accumulation of a naturally occurring protein – Amyloid – in the brain. Amyloid appears to damage nerve cells in the brain. Why this happens isn’t yet known, but it is thought to happen many years before symptoms develop.
Key facts about Alzheimer’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60% of cases. There are around 500,000 people in the UK with Alzheimer’s
- Although many people think Alzheimer’s disease is primarily a memory problem, most people will also experience behavioural or psychological symptoms.
- The risk increases as we get older, and the average age of diagnosis is around 75 years
- The time between onset of symptoms and getting a diagnosis can be over 3 years.
How will the disease affect me?
You may not be aware of any problems and may not want help. It is others around you who notice changes. You may have problems carrying out daily tasks such as reading, cooking or driving or may do things that put you at risk. Eventually, as the disease progresses, you may become more dependent on others for help. Eventually everyone with Alzheimer’s disease will need regular help.
Some of the symptoms also occur in other conditions (like depression, anxiety or stroke), so it is important to be diagnosed by a doctor with the appropriate skills.
Doctors will want to speak to you and also someone close to you so they can get a full picture of your problems. This includes how your symptoms developed over time, your background and current activities and support. The doctor will also do some brain-function tests that help identify what strengths you have and where you may need help. Sometimes the doctor will organise a brain scan or an assessment with a psychologist or occupational therapist although this is not necessary for everybody.
When all the results are back the doctor will sit down with you and explain the diagnosis and what help you can be offered.
How is it treated?
There are drug treatments available for Alzheimer’s disease. These may help improve memory and reduce confusion. These medicines do not stop the illness but do help to reduce the effects. They do not work for everyone but for some people the effects are very good. The doctor will want to monitor how you are responding to the treatment. In addition cognitive stimulation therapy, either alone or in groups, has been shown to be as helpful as the medicines.
Most people with Alzheimer’s disease will have additional symptoms such as feelings of depression or anxiety. Some people will have hallucinations or notice a change in behaviour. Many of these symptoms can be helped with appropriate treatment.
People with Alzheimer’s disease and their families and friends need a lot of support, counselling and education to help them understand the diagnosis, how the illness will progress, how to plan for the future and how to get help now. A specialist should be able to put you in touch with people that can help.
Many people with Alzheimer’s disease will eventually need help with daily activities such as cooking and dressing. An occupational therapist or physiotherapist will be able to provide advice about this.
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Dementia is the term for all illnesses that cause progressive loss of brain function. Alzheimer’s disease is one form of dementia, the commonest of many.
Will it get worse?
It will, but only over the course of a number of years.
Is it possible to enjoy a good life with dementia?
It is. Red and Yellow Care produced an influential report in 2014, written for people living with dementia, emphasized as much.
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