Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. There are approximately 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, approximately 2 in 3 of them will have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Some people think that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are one in the same. This is a common misconception, Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. You can read more about this on our page explaining the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia.
This guide to Alzheimer’s disease will help you to understand what it is, what the symptoms are, how it can be treated and more.
What is Alzheimer's?
As part of the normal ageing process, there are changes that occur in the brain. For people with Alzheimer’s disease, these changes are accelerated and more severe. As Alzheimer’s progresses, more and more nerve cells in the brain become damaged. This damage leads to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
What causes Alzheimer's?
The causes of Alzheimer’s are not wholly understood, but it is believed to be triggered by a build up of proteins in the brain. As these proteins build up, there is a decrease in the efficiency of the chemical messengers used to send messages between brain cells.
While we do not know the exact causes, we do know some factors that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. These factors include:
- Older age
- Family history of Alzheimer’s
- Severe head injury
- Cardiovascular disease
Taking steps that reduce the likelihood of cardiovascular disease, such as eating well, exercising and not smoking or drinking can also reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s.
What are the symptoms of Alzhiemer's?
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s change as a person progresses through different stages of the disease. Not all people are likely to have all of the symptoms. Some people may develop certain symptoms earlier, and some later.
Symptoms of early Alzheimer's
Lapses in memory
Forgetfulness and memory lapses are among the first signs of Alzheimer's disease. You may notice this from small incidents such as misplacing items, forgetting about recent events or conversations, repeatedly asking questions or struggling to remember words or names.
Agitation and low mood
People in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease can be prone to agitation and low mood. This is usually a response to the frustration of feeling confused.
Symptoms of middle-stage Alzheimer's
More severe memory problems
As Alzheimer's develops, memory problems become more severe. You may notice this from behaviours such as wandering and getting lost, or not knowing where they are.
Delusions and hallucinations
People can start experiencing delusions. These can make a person suspicious of the people caring for them. They may also have hallucinations (seeing things that are not real).
Problems with speech or language (Aphasia)
People with middle-stage Alzheimer's may have difficulty with speech and/or language. This is known as Aphasia.
Struggling to sleep is a very common symptom experienced by people with Alzheimer's disease. This is thought to be caused by trouble with the body's circadian rhythm (body clock). They might start waking in the night and getting up as if it's morning. Read more about this in our guide to Helping Someone with Dementia Sleep Better.
Severe and frequent mood swings
A symptom of middle-stage Alzheimer's disease is severe changes in mood. People can feel agitated, depressed, anxious and frustrated. This can be particularly bad in the late afternoon and evening — a problem which is known as sundowning.
Symptoms of late-stage Alzheimer's
Confusion and Forgetfullness
People with later-stage Alzheimer's may find it even more difficult to identify people or remember where they are. It can become difficult to remember words and to communicate with others.
Irritability and Low Mood
Low mood and mood swings can become more extreme in the later stages of Alzheimer's. The symptoms they're experiencing will feel very distressing, and can lead to lashing out.
Hallucinations and Delusions
Hallucinations, delusions and paranoia can become more severe as the disease progresses. This can sometimes result in people with Alzheimer's acting violently or inappropriately.
This can be extremely hard to manage as a carer — especially when it is somebody that you love. Always seek help if you feel as though you are in any danger.
People can find it difficult to move around without assistance, particularly if they have become frail or lost weight.
Difficuly swallowing and eating is a common symptom of late-stage Alzheimer's. This is known as dysphagia. This can sometimes be accompanied by severe weight loss.
The involuntary passing of urine or stools is a symptom of late-stage Alzheimer's.
How is Alzheimer's diagnosed?
Because initial symptoms of Alzheimer’s can be subtle, it is sometimes difficult for a diagnosis to be made. A Doctor may suggest further testing at a later date to make a comparison, or make a referral to a specialist. MRI, CT, or SPECT scans might be required, or a lumbar puncture to test spinal fluid.
Can Alzheimer's be treated?
Unfortunately there are no cures available for Alzheimer’s, though research continues. There are treatments available to ease the symptoms, and stimulate brain function. You can read more about them below.
People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s might be offered a type of drug called a cholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor. It works by aiding the production of chemicals which help messages travel around the brain and help people function at a higher level for longer.
People in the later stages of Alzheimer’s may be offered a medicine called Memantine. Memantine works by blocking the effects of glutamate, which can improve memory and minimise some of the more severe symptoms of late-stage Alzheimer’s.
Cognitive Stimulation Therapy (CST) is a type of treatment aimed at improving the memory and problem-solving skills of people with Alzheimer’s. CST usually involves a series of group activities and tasks.
Cognitive Rehabilitation is a treatment that aims to stimulate the parts of the brain that are working more effectively, in order to stimulate those that are not. It is usually led by an occupational therapist, who will guide a person with Alzheimer’s through a multi-process task.
Frequently Asked Questions about Alzheimer's
How long do people live once they have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's?
The life expectancy of someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is, on average, 6 – 8 years after diagnosis. Alzheimer’s can go undiagnosed for quite some time, and the age at which someone is diagnosed can also have an effect on how much longer they can expect to live.
From what age can people develop Alzheimer's?
It is more common to develop Alzheimer's when aged 65 or over, but some people do develop it earlier in life. People can develop young-onset dementia from the age of 30 upwards.
Is Alzheimer's inherited?
There is not a clear pathway of genetic inheritance of Alzheimer's. It is therefore far from inevitable that you will get Alzheimer's just because your relative has it.
When should I go to the GP about Alzheimer's?
If your relative has not been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but you think that they are showing symptoms, then you should organise a meeting with their GP. This will allow the doctor to make a referral to a Memory Clinic if they think it is appropriate to.
You should also go to your GP if your relative with Alzheimer's condition is changing rapidly, or they are struggling with their symptoms.
How can I track symptoms to support our case for medical suppport?
It is a good idea to keep a record of your relative's Alzheimer's symptoms written down. This will allow you to track changes over time, which will be useful for conversations with the medical professionals involved in your relative's care.
How can I manage changes in behaviour?
If Alzheimer's is causing your relative's behaviour to change a lot — particularly in the late afternoons and evenings — then they may be sundowning. This is common in middle and late-stage dementia. Read our Sundowning Dementia Guide, which includes advice from an Admiral Nurse.