This has always been a topic of interest for me. After having both my grandmothers suffer from the condition it has incentivised me to find out more about the everyday occurring disease that scientists often turn a blind eye too.
Ultimately, Alzheimers disease is caused by the death of brain cells and being a neurodegenerative disease it worsens over time, often leading to dementia.
Each sufferer has their own individual relationship with the condition but most experience significant cognitive symptoms such as:
- Problems with their day to day memory with difficulties recalling recent events
- Difficulties with concentration and organising with strong indecisiveness and the inability to carry out a sequence of tasks
- Lack of visuospatial skills with issues judging distances and visualising 3D objects
- Losing track of the date and their location
- Difficulties with language and following a conversation or finding the right work to express themselves
Additionally many sufferers battle with severe mood changes causing them to be anxious or unusually sad in particular situations.
So what actually causes Alzheimers?
Clumps of protein, known as “plaques” and “tangles”, gradually form in the brain. The plaques and tangles are thought to be responsible for the increasing loss of brain cells. These brain cells become surrounded by an abnormal protein which leads to an alteration of their internal structure which ultimately interferes with the chemical connections within the brain.
How is the Alzheimers and Dementia diagnosed?
Making a diagnosis of dementia is often difficult, particularly in the early stages. This is because there is no one simple test and early symptoms can be similar to those of lots of other common conditions. The first port of call, as usual, is the GP. They often prefer to assess and observe their behaviour in the patients home as the person is in a familiar environment. The GP will assess the person through the following procedures:
- The GP will spend some time talking to the person and someone who knows them well and will ask about how and when the symptoms started and how they are affecting the person’s life. The GP will look at the person’s medical history and those of other family members. They will also review the medicines the person is taking.
- The GP may also carry out a physical examination, particularly if a stroke or Parkinson’s disease is suspected. They will also take samples (blood and possibly urine) to send off for tests. These may identify other conditions that are causing the symptoms.
- The GP will ask the person a series of questions or give them a short pen-and-paper test. These are designed to test thinking, memory and orientation.
If there is cause for concern the patient is often referred to a specialist and CT scans can be taken for further diagnostics. The image below shows a CT scan of a patient with Alzheimers.
After the consultation the following information will become known:
- details on symptoms and the prognosis for the future
- type of dementia one has
- potential appropriate treatments for the patient
- care and support services
- information on financial and legal advice
What increases your risk of Alzheimers?
Risk factors associated with this disease include age (as the disorder is more prevalent in older patients) and family history (the inheritance of genes which have stimulated the disorder has been proven to increase your risk of Alzheimers)
What are the implications for the carers?
In the UK there are over 700,000 carers of demential patients who are unpaid. These carers release the burden on the NHS by over £12billion but there knock on effects for those taking on the mammoth task.
A recent survey revealed 9 in 10 carers for people with dementia experience feelings of stress or anxiety several times a week and a further 80 per cent find it difficult to talk about the emotional impact of caring. This is a worrying statistic and has certainly made me reflect upon my family’s personal experiences with the disease. However there is no doubt the unconditional love for the family member makes each tough day worthwhile. There is currently an extensive research programme surveying potential cognitive behavioural therapy with the hope of with further information on the disease. With this comes greater guidance for carers on how to cope with the every day struggles.
The unpredictable nature of a dementia patients can lead to caring being an incredible arduous task, incomparable to those with physical disabilities. Often being a carer can have detrimental problems to one’s health including sleep deprivation and can lead to an individual losing the social aspect of their lifestyle.
I can say from family experience that caring for someone with dementia is an emotionally discerning experience, seeing the person you know and love so well become less and less like themselves to such an extent where they no longer recognise who you are is truly heartbreaking. I strongly believe more should be done to ease the pressure on carers and help them cope with this life changing experience.