Why Alzheimer’s disease is increasing
Undoubtedly you will have heard of the term Alzheimer’s Disease Perhaps you will recall the author of the phenomenally successful Discworld series, Sir Terry Pratchett’s public battle with it and his tireless work in raising awareness of and funds for research into the condition. But what exactly is Alzheimer’s and is it the same thing as dementia?
Dementia is the name given to a number of symptoms which include memory loss and complications with speaking and thinking. Therefore, dementia is the product of Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments like it. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are not interchangeable.
Alzheimer’s is a physical disease which affects the brain. It causes the connection between the billons of nerve cells that together form the brain to be lost and reduces the number of chemicals which send signals between cells. As it is a progressive disease, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s grow steadily worse as more parts of the brain are affected.
The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that over 520,000 people currently suffer from the disease and the number is expected to rise. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s is presently unknown however the most accepted theory is that an abnormal build-up of proteins in and around brain cells is to blame. Factors such as increasing age, a family history of the disease and lifestyle factors such as smoking and obesity are thought to increase the risk of developing it.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition. This means that, over time, the symptoms become progressively worse and new symptoms may also emerge. Alzheimer’s symptoms develop over a period of years, the first of which are generally minor memory lapses which grow in frequency and severity as the disease takes hold.
These lapses will appear mild enough at first and will include such things as forgetting recent events or conversations, misplacing items and having trouble finding the right words in conversations. Indeed, during the early stages of Alzheimer’s, it is often difficult to ascertain that something is wrong, as the early symptoms can easily be dismissed as by-products of the ageing process. Another sign to look out for during the early stages of Alzheimer’s is mood changes. You may notice increased anxiety and irritation, as well as bouts of confusion.
It is not until the middle-stages of Alzheimer’s that the symptoms become more apparent. At this stage, the memory problems will become more severe. The sufferer may struggle to remember the names of close friends or family members.
Their confusion and disorientation will also increase in severity, which may involve getting lost frequently and being unaware of what time of day it is. The sufferer could become delusional and feelings of paranoia and mistrust of others may establish themselves. Spatial awareness will also become an issue and performing relevant tasks will be more challenging. It is at this stage that a person with Alzheimer’s will begin to require care and support with everyday living and performing tasks such as eating, dressing and sanitation.
As Alzheimer’s progresses towards its advanced stage, the symptoms will reach their most distressing levels, both to the person with it and those closest to them. Hallucinations and delusions will occur with varying measures of frequency and severity.
It is at this stage that the person with Alzheimer’s may begin to react violently towards those around them. New symptoms may also develop around this time. Signs to look out for include difficulties with eating and swallowing, unexplained weight loss, losing control of either the bladder or the bowels and a gradual loss of speech. By this stage, full-time care will be essential.
Anyone can develop Alzheimer’s at any age, although it is more common in people over the age of 65. The risk of not only Alzheimer’s but other forms of dementia grows higher after that age. It has been estimated that around 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 are affected by Alzheimer’s. The disease does not solely affect older people however. Around 1 in 20 cases of Alzheimer’s are of people aged between 40 and 65. In younger people, it is commonly known as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
If you believe that you or someone you know is developing Alzheimer’s disease the first step is to consult your GP. Memory loss has other causes apart from Alzheimer’s and your doctor will be able to ascertain whether or not further assessments are required.
If they are, you will be referred to a specialist who will use cognitive assessments to assess your mental ability. In order to eliminate other potential causes of your symptoms, you may be referred for a brain scan such as a CT scan or an MRI scan. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is generally a long, slow process which can take several months to complete.
After a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the most important thing to do is to remain practical. It is an incurable disease, so understandably it will take time to come to terms with. As with all major illnesses each person responds differently. A diagnosis is a life-changing revelation and post-diagnosis the person with Alzheimer’s should take as much time as they need to process the news.
The Alzheimer’s Society is always willing to provide advice and support if needed. Following the diagnosis, and taking into account that Alzheimer’s is a progressive illness, it is advisable to make plans for the future and ensure that all affairs are put in order, especially those of a legal, financial and care nature.
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