Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It was first observed by Dr Alois Alzheimer in 1901.

It is a progressive illness caused by chemical changes in the brain that allow abnormal proteins to build, forming clumps known as plaques or tangles. The plaques are usually first seen in the area of the brain that makes new memories, and memory loss, or difficulty remembering words, is often one of the earliest symptoms.

Typical symptoms of early Alzheimer’s include:

  •     Regularly forgetting recent events, names and faces
  •     Regularly misplacing items or putting them in odd places
  •     Confusion about the time of day
  •     Disorientation, especially away from normal surroundings
  •     Getting lost
  •     Problems finding the right words
  •     Mood or behaviour problems such as apathy, irritability, or losing confidence

As the disease progresses communication, perception, orientation and mobility can be affected as the brain's ability to control the body declines.

Treatment

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease. However, drugs are available that can slow down symptoms in some people.

Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl work by maintaining levels of acetylcholine in the brain. Side-effects are usually minor but may include diarrhoea, nausea, insomnia, fatigue and loss of appetite.

A fourth drug, Ebixa (trade name for the drug memantine) works in a different way from the other three and is the only drug that is recommended for people in both the moderate and severe stages of Alzheimer's disease. Side-effects may include dizziness, headaches and tiredness, and - rarely - hallucinations or confusion.

However, knowing more about the disease and understanding why the changes are happening, can help the person and those around them to cope better.  Coping strategies include slowing down the pace of life, following routines, using clear communication and focusing on what the person affected can still do and enjoy doing, rather than on their limitations. 

How carers and family can help