What is Alzheimer's disease?

By: Helen West,

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia. It's a physical disease that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behaviour.

Alzheimer's and dementia are often used interchangeably, but dementia is a broad term that describes a number of symptoms including memory loss. Alzheimer's is one of many diseases that can cause dementia, along with Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease.

Graphic reads: Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia, affecting 62% of those diagnosed.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia in the UK, affecting 62 per cent of those diagnosed.

While there's no cure, medication and support can help a person with Alzheimer's cope with everyday life.

What causes Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's is thought to be a result of the abnormal build-up of proteins in the brain.

This build-up damages the connections between the brain's nerve cells, blocking communications from one cell to another. In time, these brain cells die.

We don't know exactly what causes this process to begin, but scientists do know that it starts many years before the symptoms of Alzheimer's appear.

There are some factors that are known to increase your risk of developing the condition. These include age, gender, and your family history and your genes.

 

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer's?

The symptoms of Alzheimer's can be divided into three main stages: early symptoms, middle-stage symptoms, and later symptoms.

Memory lapses are a common early symptom of dementia. You may notice yourself or someone close to you forgetting about recent events, misplacing items, or having trouble thinking of the right word. There may also be signs of mood changes, such as increased anxiety.

As the disease develops, additional symptoms may develop. These include increased confusion and disorientation, repetitive or impulsive behaviour, and problems with speech or language. Changes in mood may also become more obvious or more extreme.

In the later stages of the condition, symptoms become increasingly severe and a person may experience hallucinations and delusions. A person is likely to need full-time care.

How can I reduce my risk of dementia?

There is evidence that leading a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of dementia.

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk. A lack of physical activity, high blood pressure, and smoking all lead to narrowing of the arteries, which can increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Woman sits at a table colouring in

Staying mentally active can help your brain cope with the symptoms of dementia.

It's also important to stay mentally and socially active. You may have heard the phrase 'use it or lose it'. Challenging yourself mentally helps the brain cope if you do develop dementia or Alzheimer's.

Learning a new language, doing puzzles or crosswords, and regularly talking and communicating with other people are all great ways of using your brain and staying mentally active.

Can Alzheimer's be treated?

There isn't a cure for Alzheimer's but there are ways you can manage the symptoms, especially in the early stages of the illness. 

Medication is often prescribed but there are a variety of other treatments that can improve someone's quality of life.

Cognitive stimulation therapy is a way of keeping a person's mind active. It often involves taking part in group activities and exercises to improve memory and problem-solving skills.

Many people with Alzheimer's also enjoy reminiscence or life story work. They are encouraged to share their memories and may enjoy activities like creating a scrap book or looking at old photos. These activities can be beneficial for a person's mood and wellbeing, and can help maintain their mental ability.

What is a memory cafe, and how could it help someone with Alzheimer's?

You may have heard of memory cafes. They are welcoming places for individuals with any type of dementia to meet other people affected by the disease. They are usually run by a trained professional or a volunteer with experience in dementia care.

Memory cafes offer a range of stimulating activities like sing-alongs, quizzes, and painting to help people with dementia. This can help keep a person's mind active, and help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

They're also a place for family members and carers to socialise, chat informally to professionals, and find out more about dementia and the support that is available.

To find your local memory cafe, visit www.memorycafes.org.uk and enter your postcode. The Alzheimer's Society also runs Singing for the Brain sessions, which use singing to help individuals with dementia express themselves and meet other people through song.

Read more: Could you spot the early warning signs of dementia?

Read more: How could a Middletons product help someone with Huntington's disease?


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