What is Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, which causes thinking and memory to become seriously impaired. It is the most common form of dementia. (Dementia is a syndrome consisting of a number of symptoms that include loss of memory, judgment and reasoning, and changes in mood, behaviour and communication abilities.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but there are treatment options and lifestyle choices that can slow its progression and, within the next five years, treatments are expected that may well stop the disease in its tracks! Also, the pursuit of new research strategies could one day help restore some lost function and memory.
The disease was first identified by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906. He described the two hallmarks of the disease: "plaques" - numerous tiny dense deposits scattered throughout the brain which become toxic to brain cells at excessive levels and "tangles" which interfere with vital processes eventually "choking" off the living cells. As well, when brain cells degenerate and die, the brain markedly shrinks in some regions.
Alzheimer's disease progresses through early, middle and late stages before reaching the final end of life stage. However, identifying the transition from one stage to another is often difficult. Not only does the disease usually progress slowly, but the symptoms related to each stage tend to overlap and the order in which they appear and how long they last varies from person to person.
The duration following diagnosis is usually seven to ten years. However, when the diagnosis is delayed, as it may be if the affected person fails to see a doctor early on, the disease duration is shorter than this. Conversely, as the ability to diagnose Alzheimer's disease improves and people become more willing to be assessed, survival times following diagnosis are lengthening.
As Alzheimer’s disease progresses and affects different areas of the brain, various abilities become impaired. The result is changes in abilities and/or behaviour. At present, once an ability is lost, it is not known to return. However, research is now suggesting that some relearning may be possible.
The Effects of Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's disease eventually affects all aspects of a person's life: how he or she thinks and acts. Since individuals are affected differently, it is difficult to predict the symptoms each person will have, the order in which they will appear, or the speed of the disease's progression.
In general the following will be affected by the disease:
- A person's ability to understand, think, remember and communicate will be affected.
- The ability to make decisions will be reduced.
- Simple tasks that have been performed for years will become more difficult or be forgotten.
- Confusion and memory loss, initially for recent events and eventually for long-term events, will occur.
- The ability to find the right words and follow a conversation will be affected.
Emotions and moods
- A person may appear uninterested and apathetic, and may quickly lose interest in the hobbies they previously enjoyed.
- The ability to control mood and emotion may be lost.
- Some individuals are less expressive and are more withdrawn.
- However, it is now becoming clear that a person even in the later stages of the disease may continue to feel a range of emotions including joy, anger, fear, love, and sadness.
Changes will develop in the way the person reacts to his or her environment. These actions may seem out of character for the person. Some common reactions include:
- repeating the same action or words
- hiding possessions
- physical outbursts
The disease can affect a person's physical co-ordination and mobility, leading to a gradual physical decline. This will affect the person's ability to independently perform day-to-day tasks, such as eating, bathing and getting dressed.