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Alzheimer's Disease

"Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disease affecting the brain. Currently there is no cure and no means of preventing it. But by leading a healthy lifestyle we may be able to reduce our risk of developing the disease. A healthy diet, a moderate amount of exercise most days of the week, brain exercises, sleep and an active social life are not just good for our brains but our bodies too." Dr Christine Bennett, Chair, Medical Advisory Panel, Bupa Australia

What is Alzheimer's disease? 

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disease of the brain. It's the most common type of dementia. Dementia is the term for the deterioration of brain function that results in loss of memory, reduced language skills, impaired reasoning and behavioural and emotional problems. An estimated 200,000 Australians have dementia; of which 50-70 percent account for Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease is rare in younger people and the risk of developing it increases with age. One in 25 Australians aged 60 years and over is affected by the disease.

There are two general types of Alzheimer's disease: sporadic and familial.

Sporadic Alzheimer's disease

Sporadic Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of Alzheimer's disease, accounting for 90 percent of cases. In most cases the age of onset in adults is 65 years and above. Other factors that make you more likely to develop Alzheimer's include previous head injury, high blood pressure and heart disease. Some people with Down's syndrome may develop Alzheimer's disease in their 30s or 40s.

Familial Alzheimer's disease

In rare cases, Alzheimer's disease is inherited. There are also some genetic risk factors - particular brain characteristics you may inherit - that make you more likely to get Alzheimer's, but do not mean that you definitely will. The age of onset is earlier than it is for sporadic Alzheimer's disease.

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease? 

In the early stages, Alzheimer's disease starts with forgetfulness and difficulty in finding the right words. Family or friends may notice changes in behaviour such as irritability, no longer being able to cope with the demands of a busy life, and becoming frustrated with memory loss.

As the disease progresses, memory loss gets worse and some people have difficulty in learning new skills. Changes in behaviour may become more obvious, with people saying or doing things that are out of character. Everyday tasks such as getting dressed, washing, cooking, travelling and handling money become difficult.

Disorientation is common. People with Alzheimer's can lose their sense of time and place. For example, they may get dressed in the middle of the night or walk off and get lost. New surroundings and new people may be confusing. There will be difficulty recognising previously well-known family and friends. Simple delusions are also common such as believing someone is stealing from them.

Some people become depressed when they realise what's happening to them and they will require treatment for their depression also.

During the later stages of the disease, people with Alzheimer's may  depend on others to look after them. Walking can become difficult and urinary incontinence may develop. It is at this stage that many people require full-time residential care.

The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can be stressful for the person's carers and family who feel they've lost the person they once knew.

The period of time between when a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and when they pass away is usually seven to 10 years. But given the rate of progression varies from person to person, it can be anything from 18 months to 15 years. Often the cause of death in a person with Alzheimer's is another illness, such as an infection.

What happens in the brain with Alzheimer's disease? 

When the brain is working normally, signals travel between nerve cells to and from the body and other parts of the brain. These signals allow the brain to think, as well as controlling your arms, legs and the rest of your body.

In Alzheimer's disease, “tangles” and “plaques” form in the spaces between cells in the parts of the brain where thinking occurs. This means the signals can't travel from one nerve cell to another. As more and more cells are affected, dementia eventually develops.

Why do people get Alzheimer's disease? 

Researchers don't know why some people get Alzheimer's disease and others don't. It's likely that no single factor causes it, but rather that it's due to a variety of factors that differ from person to person.

The most important risk factors for Alzheimer's disease are old age and having Alzheimer's disease in the family. Various lifestyle and environmental factors have also been linked with Alzheimer's disease.

Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented? 

Some researchers have suggested that people who keep their brains active, for example by doing crosswords, are less likely to develop the disease. It's recommended that a healthy diet, regular exercise, healthy sleep habits and an active social life can protect against developing Alzheimer's disease. More information about Alzheimer's disease and ways to try and prevent it.

How is Alzheimer's disease diagnosed? 

There is no single test for Alzheimer's disease. If a GP suspects someone may have Alzheimer's, they'll make a careful assessment. This might include a test of your mental state, a physical examination, blood and urine tests, and brain scans. They might also refer you to a specialist for more tests.

How is Alzheimer's disease treated? 

At the moment, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. However, certain medicines may stabilise the condition in people with mild or moderate Alzheimer's. Other medicines may be appropriate to treat depression. Talk to your doctor about whether or not medicines are appropriate.

Physical activity, conversation, mental stimulation and recreational activities can all help to improve quality of life for people with Alzheimer's. Speech therapy may help people having trouble with swallowing and feeding. The ‘Mind Your Mind' program by Alzheimer's Australia aims to reduce the risk of developing dementia. This program focuses on seven healthy lifestyle factors including keeping your brain active, eating a balanced diet, healthy habits, regular exercise, avoiding injury, periodic health checks and leading an active social life. For more details, see the Further Information section below.

Living with Memory Loss support groups are available in each state free of charge. Details are available on the Alzheimer's Australia website at alzheimers.org.au

Where can I get help or support as a carer of someone with Alzheimer's disease? 

Help and support in terms of respite care (giving carers a break), social services and residential care is an important part of the overall care of someone with Alzheimer's disease. Call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 for more information.

Further information 

Alzheimer's Australia

alzheimers.org.au

Mind your Mind

mindyourmind.org.au

BrainyApp

BrainyApp

Sources

Alzheimer's Australia. About dementia: Alzheimer's disease. [online] Scullin, ACT: Alzheimer's Australia. July 2005 [accessed 22 June 2011] http://www.alzheimers.org.au/

Alzheimer's Australia. Dementia risk reduction: A practical guide for general practitioners. [online] Scullin, ACT: Alzheimer's Australia. March 2010 [Accessed 22 June 2011] Available from: http://www.mindyourmind.org.au/

Better Health Channel. Alzheimer's disease - latest research. [online] Melbourne, VIC. c2011 [Last updated March 2010] Available from: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Alzheimer's_disease_-_latest_research?open

Better Health Channel. Alzheimer's disease explained. [online] Melbourne, VIC. c2011 [Last updated May 2010] Available from: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/

Last published: 30 July 2011

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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