The official description is that Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive, degenerative neurological condition caused by nerve cell death resulting in shrinkage of the brain.
Whether you have seen someone you love personally affected by the disease or not, it is the following symptoms that are familiar to most.
The devastating symptoms can include:
- gradual memory loss, especially short term memory
- decline in ability to perform routine tasks
- disorientation to time and space
- impaired judgement, abstract thinking and physical coordination
- difficulty in learning and concentration
- loss of language and communication skills
- changes in personality, behaviour and mood – up to two thirds of people with AD have depressive symptoms and about 20% exhibit aggression
- hallucinations and delusions, often paranoid
- loss of initiative
- altered sleep patterns and eating disturbances
There is currently no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, no cure and few effective treatments that stop its progression.
The reality which must be faced is that dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease comprising about 70% of all cases, is a major and growing public health issue. Dementia is more common than skin cancer, yet has significantly less investment in public health initiatives and research. Only urgent, significant investment in research can deliver the preventative measures and effective treatments needed to halt this looming crisis.
You may think Alzheimer’s is a disease for the elderly, however Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of the aging process and symptoms can develop in some as early as 30 years old.
The progression of the disease may last from three to twenty years, with an average of eight years, from diagnosis. It can be acute, which means it develops rapidly from diagnosis until death within a few years. But more often it is chronic, where the disease develops slowly for up to twenty years before death.
The disease results in increasing levels of disability, requiring progressively higher levels of care to carry out activities required for day to day living. It can also result in changes in behaviour.
The average length of time from diagnosis may be increasing as people present earlier and our skill in earlier diagnosis improves.
Researchers strongly believe that the actual onset of the condition occurs much earlier than our current ability to diagnose it, with brain imaging possibly detecting disease risk 15 – 20 years before symptoms.
Alzheimer’s is often categorised according to the severity of the symptoms as:
- mild (early stage),
- moderate (middle stage), and
- severe or advanced (late stage).
The mild phase, which typically lasts three to four years and represents about 30% of diagnosed cases, is characterised by mild symptoms of memory loss and disorientation requiring some assistance and surveillance.
Moderate disease occurs in a further 40% of diagnosed AD cases. As the disease progresses, more difficulties with daily functioning occur and assistance with daily living is increasingly required.
In the final years the disease is severe (the remaining 30% of diagnosed cases), with communication and mobility problems requiring high levels of specialised care often in a nursing home setting.
Death is often attributable to pneumonia or other infections.
There are currently no effective treatments that stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.