WHAT IS ALZHEIMERS?
Alzheimer's disease is probably the most well-known form of dementia, but is also one of the most misunderstood. It is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer and describes a disease that affects the brain. Alzheimers is a progressive and degenerative disease, which means it becomes more debilitating over a period of time.
Alzheimers occurs when protein builds up in the brain and forms structures called 'tau tangles' and 'amyloid plaques'. As these structures develop, connections between the nerve cells in the brain are interrupted and eventually die, resulting in damage to the brain tissue. This leads to the gradual loss of intellectual (including memory) and social skills.
Those living with Alzheimers also lack some important brain chemicals which help transmit signals around the brain. When they are in short supply, these signals don't travel as effectively. As the disease takes hold, more areas of the brain are affected, meaning more symptoms begin to emerge.
Sadly there is no cure for Alzheimers (at the moment) but there are a number of drugs which help to ease the symptoms (by increasing those missing chemicals) and some lifestyle choices that can help.
As with many dementias, the symptoms may be quite mild to start with but, over time, they begin to get worse and gradually affect the daily life of those with the condition. As with many conditions which affect the brain, not everyone will necessarily be affected in exactly the same way, even if they have the same diagnosis.
As we said, initially the symptoms may be quite mild, including memory loss. How many times have you heard people who've forgotten where they've placed their phone, wallet or keys complain that "they're getting Alzheimers". It's a light-hearted phrase for the most part, but it does signify how many people are affected when they are first diagnosed. One of the first symptoms will be memory lapses; forgetting where they've put things, trouble remembering recent events, taking in new information or even feeling lost in places they've been many times. The early stages of Alzheimers affect an area of the brain called the 'hippocampus'; a vital cog in the machine of day-to-day life.
As time goes on, areas of the brain that control language, concentration, orientation and spatial awareness can also be affected. Many will undergo changes in personality as their mood changes. They can become easily anxious, irritable and often lose interest in hobbies they've enjoyed previously. It is not uncommon for those with the early onset of Alzheimers to withdraw and can become depressed.
In the later stages of Alzheimers, the symptoms previously mentioned will deteriorate and they will need more and more support with day-to-day activities. The affect on the brain will mean that many begin to believe thoughts that aren't true and can also begin to hallucinate. The changes in their personality begin to increase and can start to act in ways that are inappropriate or out-of-character. This can be quite upsetting for both the person with the condition and those caring for them.
In the latter stages, people with Alzheimers will become less aware of their surroundings, can have trouble with even the simplest of tasks (like eating and drinking) and often struggle to walk unaided. The life expectancy of someone with Alzheimers will vary from person to person.
On average, people live between 8 and 10 years from the time they were diagnosed, but this can be more or less, depending on a number of factors, including the age of the person.
WHAT CAUSES ALZHEIMERS?
As with many mental illnesses, the cause isn't clear. As we've mentioned, it's a degenerative disease, but what causes it in the first place is a matter of conjecture. Those with Alzheimers have been found to have abnormal amounts of proteins (those tangles and plaques we mentioned earlier) and a chemical called acetylcholine which reduce the effectiveness of the nerve cells in the brain.
Whilst it doesn't automatically 'cause' Alzheimers, age does play a part. It is true to say that most people will develop the disease in later life, it isn't completely an 'old people's disease'. Once you hit 65 years of age, the likelihood of developing it doubles every five years, but 1 in 20 who are diagnosed with it are under 65. This is known as 'early-onset Alzheimers'.
Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimers. Those with Down's Syndrome, for example, are more likely to develop it because the genetic fault that causes Down's can also cause those pesky amyloid plaques to build up, leading to Alzheimers in some cases. In addition, those who suffer severe head or whiplash injuries are also at greater risk.
As much as we hate to say it, those who are at a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases as a result of smoking, poor diet (i.e. obese), have diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol also increase their risk of Alzheimers. If ever there was a better time to improve your diet and lifestyle, it's now!
If you (or someone you know) has Alzheimers to any degree, there may be some organisations on our Where To Turn pages that can help you. If not, and you know of one, please let us know and we'll look into it.
Also, if you'd like to share your experiences of living with Alzheimers (either your own or someone else) with our community so they can better understand how it feels, please take a look at our 'Men Tell' section.