Alzheimer's

What is it?

Alzheimer's disease is a mental illness which generally presents in older patients, although diagnosis of patients in their thirties is not uncommon. Occasionally the condition can present even earlier, but these cases tend to be those of people who have other genetic conditions that predispose them to mental deterioration.

The condition was noted and named after a physician, Dr Alois Alzheimer, who examined the brain of a woman who had died of an unknown mental condition in which she was subject to bouts of erratic behaviour, language difficulties and memory loss. Her brain revealed irregular 'clumps' and tangled bundles of fibres. Another effect of the disease is for connections to break down between the nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain.

Recognizing the symptoms

Now, if you are occasionally absent-minded, forget things every now and then, and struggle to remember where you left the car keys, do not panic – these are absolutely normal happenings, not the sign of anything untoward! Early signs of Alzheimer's include short term memory loss, forgetting that the memory loss ever happened, and deepening confusion with occurrences that are outside the norm. It is generally family members and those who are close to the patient who notice these slight, insidious changes first, perhaps mentioning to each other that the patient seems a little 'out of it' or seems to be ageing. Symptoms can begin to present a full decade before a confirmed medical diagnosis can be made, and it can be very hard on family members to have to watch that slow decline before it is confirmed as being a medical condition, not simply the ageing process.

As the condition progresses, symptoms worsen. The patient can become very passive and non-communicative, or could have outbursts of more aggressive behaviour, sometimes set off by fear or frustration at not being able to remember as clearly as before. In the middling stages, there tends to be more confusion, even with regular, day-to-day happenings; more marked forgetfulness, even with information that has just been passed onto the patient and some loss of self-awareness can creep in. By this stage, it is apparent that there is a serious problem, and the patient should have been diagnosed.

Late stage Alzheimer's can be a very distressing illness, as the patient seems to lose all touch with reality, repeating the same conversations over and over again, suffering speech impairments and seeming paranoid, anxious and even being abusive to family members and carers. At this stage, it is usual for patients to require a caregiver around the clock, which can place a financial burden on a family already suffering from the physical effects of the condition.

Treatment

Very sadly there is no cure, treatment or even prevention plan available for Alzheimer's, making it almost unique in the medical field. As the causes are not fully known or understood, it is hard for the medical profession and scientists to know how formulate an Alzheimer's care plan.

To summarize:
  • Alzheimer's is much better understood these days, but there is still some confusion between it and other forms of dementia, and the condition remains a mystery in some ways
  • It is best to get a professional diagnosis sooner, rather than later. While many feel the disease to be an embarrassment, to be kept private for as long as possible, there are alternative treatments, therapies and even financial assistance available for both the patient and dedicated caregiver. Respite care is available too, so that the primary caregiver can have a rest.
  • While Alzheimer's seems to have a correlation with the clumps and tangles inside the brain it is not clear whether they are the cause of the mental decline, or just another symptom of the disease.