Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and accounts for between 50% and 60% of all dementias. Other terms used for Alzheimer's are pre-senile dementia and primary degenerative dementia (however pre-senile dementia is incorrectly used as a term for Alzheimer's disease).
Alzheimer's disease was first described in a woman by the German neurologist Alois Alzheimer as a physical disease affecting the brain. The disease itself was named Alzheimer’s by Dr Emil Kraeplin in 1910. During the course of the disease, abnormal proteins form plaques and tangles in the structure of the brain. Tangles lead to the death of brain cells. These changes are associated with a shortage of some important chemicals needed for the transmission of messages within the brain.
Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, which means that gradually, over time, more parts of the brain are damaged. As this happens, the symptoms become more severe.
There can be some positives as this woman explains in the video below.
So far, no one single factor has been identified as a cause for Alzheimer's disease. It's likely that a combination of factors, including age, genetic inheritance and environmental factors are responsible.
Age: is the greatest risk factor for dementia. Dementia affects approximately 1 in 20 people over the age of 65 and 1 in 5 over the age of 80. The majority of these will have Alzheimer's disease. However, Alzheimer's is not restricted to elderly people. No accurate New Zealand figures are available, but it is reasonable to guess there may be more than 1000 people under 65 with dementia in New Zealand, perhaps half of whom will have Alzheimer's disease.
Genetic inheritance: Some relatives worry that they may inherit Alzheimer's disease. We do know that the chance of a person developing Alzheimer's disease is somewhat greater if they have a parent or sibling with the condition than if there were no cases of Alzheimer's in the immediate family. Similar genetic makeup among relatives is likely to be part of the reason for this.
However, there are very few families where there is a direct inheritance of the disease from one generation to the next, due to mutation of a single gene. In such families, the disease usually appears relatively early in life.
In the general population a number of susceptibility genes that increase the risk of developing the disease but do not cause it have been identified. Because of the difference in their chromosomal makeup, people with Down syndrome who live into their 40s and 50s are highly likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.
Environmental factors: People with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease include those who:
People in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease experience lapses of short-term memory. As the disease progresses they may:
As the disease progresses, people with Alzheimer's will need more support from those who care for them. Eventually, they will need help with all their daily activities.
While there are some common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, it is important to remember that everyone is unique. No two cases of Alzheimer's are likely to be the same. People always experience illness in their own individual way.
If you are concerned you or someone close to you may have symptoms of Alzheimer's disease or dementia, it is important to go see your doctor. An early diagnosis will:
There is no straightforward test for dementia. A diagnosis is usually made by excluding other conditions such as, depression, delirium or the side effects of drugs. Once dementia has been established, to reach a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease the GP or specialist will need to rule out:
Your GP may ask a specialist for help in establishing a diagnosis. The specialist may be:
Who you see depends on your age, how physically able you are, and the services available in your area.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease. However, a number of drug treatments are available that can help with some of the symptoms or hold back progression of the disease (on average, by 6 to12 months) in some people.
Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are one such group and include:
Another drug, memantine (Ebixa) is also available in New Zealand.
Factors that protect against the development of Alzheimer's disease include:
There is limited evidence for the usefulness of ginkgo biloba extract and other herbal treatments, and for high dose vitamin E. Dietary and other lifestyle changes may also improve the course of Alzheimer's disease. Check out these interesting links:
Alzheimers New Zealand Information and support
World Alzheimers Month – quarterly newsletter Alzheimers New Zealand
Booklets and factsheets Alzheimer's NZ
Short films about Alzheimer's disease Public Broadcasting Service, USA, 2010
FREE 1/2 hour consultation with an Alzheimer's NZ senior trustee Open to existing and newly diagnosed dementia patients, their families and supporters. Freephone 0800 156 015 to book.
World Alzheimer full Report 2015 (PDF 92 pages) Summary Sheet (PDF 2 pages) Alzheimer's Disease International