The term Alzheimer’s Disease often strikes dread in anyone given such a diagnosis… and with just cause. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease of the brain with no definite cure yet in sight. This mental disease is fatal. Alzheimer’s causes dementia, a set of progressive symptoms marked by memory loss, difficulties with problem solving and vocabulary, and other cognitive issues. At present, there are more than 520,000 people in the U.K. who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
This degenerative neurological disease gets its name from its discoverer, Dr. Alois Alzheimer. Although its greatest risk factor is old age with the majority of patients at 65 or older, Alzheimer’s is not a natural offshoot of aging. The disease can manifest its symptoms in people belonging to the 40 or 50 year old age bracket. Aside from advancing age, other high risk factors include:
- Hereditary propensity for acquiring the disease
- Previous severe head injuries
- Lifestyle factors and health conditions also associated with cardiovascular diseases — smoking, bad diets, and sedentary habits that cause obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, and hypertension
- Down’s syndrome
What precisely causes Alzheimer’s is not known.
Alzheimer’s develops gradually through the years, with its symptoms progressing from mild to severe. The disease attacks the brain’s cognitive and emotional functions thus compromising reasoning, focus, memory, emotional, and spatial abilities. Alzheimer’s signals its early onset with the following signs:
- Memory problems: Lapses in memory such as forgetting the names of certain places and people with whom one has frequent contact with. Patient may also have difficulty remembering recent events and conversations. The patient can also misplace important things like keys and documents. Memory loss is to a degree that usually interferes with daily life.
- Mood changes: As the disease starts affecting parts of the brain that control emotions, patients may feel anxious, depressed, irritable, suspicious, or confused. They are not themselves. Small deviations from routine or their comfort zone can upset them at work and at home.
- Problems with communication and language: People with the disease often forget some terms or object names. During conversations, they may find themselves unable to remember the right word or phrase and get frustrated just trying to express themselves.
As Alzheimer’s progresses and more brain cells get damaged, the symptoms worsen. The patient may exhibit:
- Increased memory loss: At this stage, the person is more forgetful than ever and may ask for information repeatedly. Toward the advanced stages, he may stop recognising familiar faces of family and friends. It could be very painful for the spouse, children, or close friend if the patient forgets who and what they are to him/her. The patient may also find himself increasingly misplacing his things. He may feel anxious and be in denial about this disability that he may turn suspicious and accuse others of stealing his lost items.
- Deterioration of problem-solving and reasoning skills: Focus deteriorates and so do the abilities to follow instructions, think logically, and calculate everyday mathematical problems like balancing budgets.
- Disorientation / confusion: The patient may forget familiar routes so that he may not even know where he is or he arrived at a place. He may also lose track of time, dates, and even seasons.
- Decline in visual and spatial relationships: People with Alzheimer’s may have problems determining depth, size, distance, colours, and contrasts. This can interfere with driving skills and the ability to operate equipment.
- Decline in verbal and written skills: As the disease progresses, vocabulary becomes affected so much so that in the effort to express themselves, they call things by different names. For example, they may call the TV, a moving picture box; a key may be called a lock stick. The patient may also have a difficult time following conversations and may talk about something far from the conversational topic. They may also keep repeating themselves because they have forgotten that they had already mentioned what they want to convey twice before.
- Increasingly making poor choices and bad judgements: Alzheimer’s patients are great targets for scammers, unscrupulous salespeople, and the like. Because of their declining cognitive skills, patients are apt to fork over large sums for things they do not need or give consent to things they normally would not have.
- Worsening moods: Patients can become increasingly depressed, fearful, panic-stricken, confused, and paranoid from the results of cognitive decline. Losing one’s memory and perception can be very scary for a person so he is apt to be embroiled in very negative emotions. In some cases, patients can hallucinate or have delusions.
- Withdrawal from society: Cognitive decline brings about a decreased interest in hobbies or activities previously loved. It also brings about deterioration in one’s social skills and even self-care abilities such as personal hygiene and remembering important events. As such, the patient withdraws from social company.
As all these symptoms point out, Alzheimer’s changes a person’s character and personality as it erodes the brain cells. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is 8-10 years. In aggressive cases, disease can run the course of 3 years. In slow progressing cases, a patent could live 20 or so more years.
How Alzheimer’s Works
When Alzheimer’s starts attacking the brain, it may take a decade before a person experiences any symptoms. Alzheimer’s first attacks the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memories. Abnormal deposits of proteins create tau tangles and amyloid plaques that destroy the neurons. As these deadly proteins spread, they cut neuronal connections, leaving once healthy neurons to die out and parts of the brain to shrink. As disease progresses into its final stages, the brain should show extensive damage, enough to have shrunk it significantly and fatally.
What Can Be Done?
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease but there are medications and therapies available that could slow down the progression of the symptoms. A healthcare professional such as a GP or psychiatrist and social care services can work out a long-term health and social care plan which should cover the following:
- What support the patients needs to help them remain independent for as long as possible
- What physical changes are needed in the home to support patient independence or making his home easier to live with
- Financial assistance needed
Patients and their caregivers should look into therapies such as cognitive stimulation which helps improve and stave off declines in memory, language skills, and problem solving skills. Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT), arts therapy, and meditation can significantly help manage emotional problems such as depression, hallucination, paranoia, and the like which Alzheimer’s is apt to compound if left to run untreated.