- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
Alzheimer's Disease Symptoms and Treatment
Alzheimer's disease, which is receiving more and more media attention, is named after a German physician who lived in the latter part of the nineteenth century and was the first to describe the disease. It is one of the most common forms of dementia in the elderly, but unfortunately it may strike as early as the mid-fifties and cause extreme distress to spouses, family and friends. It is characterized by loss of recent memory, loss of initiative, reduced physical activity, confusion, loss of orientation (patients become confused about where they are and what day it is), and then it gradually progresses to loss of speech, difficulty in swallowing (drooling results), stiff muscles, incontinence of both feces and urine, and a bedridden state in which the patients are totally unaware of themselves or anything that is happening around them. The brain ceases to function at any conscious level. From diagnosis to this tragic final condition takes on average seven years, and eventually death results.
Alzheimer's disease is caused by a faster than normal loss of nerve cells in the brain. Every person has a set number of brain cells, which reach their maximum number in the mid teen years. From then on, the number of brain cells slowly decreases, the rate of cell loss increasing with age. If this rate of cell loss becomes excessive, and affects particularly the front and sides of the brain that are responsible for our thoughts, personality and ingenuity, this disease occurs. The dead cells are replaced by plaques of inactive scar tissue in the brain. The exact cause for the increased rate of brain cell loss is not known, but research is continuing, and several interesting changes in the chemistry of the brain have been discovered. Whether these discoveries will lead to the cause will have to await further investigations. Recent studies suggest specific genes may predispose a person to Alzheimer's disease, and certainly there is a familial tendency, i.e. the most accurate predicting factor in whether you will develop the disease is if your parents did.
There is no easy way to diagnose the condition until the disease is far advanced and a reduced brain volume may show on a CT scan. The diagnosis is primarily one that is made by the doctor after excluding all other forms of dementia in an elderly patient. Blood tests, X-rays, electroencephalograms and possibly taking a sample of the spinal fluid may all be used to ensure that there is not a treatable cause for the dementia.
The progress of the disease can be assessed by neurologists and psychologists who conduct specific tests of skill, general knowledge, simple maths, etc., to determine the rate of deterioration. Some patients may not deteriorate for some time, then drop to a lower level of activity quite suddenly.
There is no cure, and treatments are aimed at keeping the patient content and ensuring that the family is able to cope with him/her at home for as long as possible. Medication is only useful for restlessness and insomnia.
Physiotherapists, occupational therapists, home nursing care and health visitors are the mainstay of management. The family general practitioner can prove to be an invaluable source of regular encouragement and support. When necessary, the doctor can arrange for admission to a respite care centers to give the family a holiday from the patient, and in due course can arrange for admission to a nursing home or hospital.
Many claims have been made for various herbal extracts, vitamins and secret elixirs, but unfortunately, when subjected to careful trials, none have proved to be beneficial. Many of these remedies are expensive and only add to the financial distress of the affected family.
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