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German neurologist Dr Alois Alzheimer in 1906 was the first person to described Alzheimer’s Disease and today it is by far the most common cause of dementia, accounting for an estimated 60-80% of all cases. It is predicted that in 2040 there will be about 80 million people affected by Alzheimer's disease across the world. This is four times the number of people affected now.

During the progression of this disease the brain structure and its chemistry change and leads to brain cells dying. Usually, the first noticeable sign is when a person suffers from problems with their short-term memory.

It is a physical disease of the brain, which as it progresses, disease plaques, which are abnormal clusters of protein that have built up between nerve cells, and tangles, twisted cells of protein, develop in the brain leading to the death of brain cells.

People with Alzheimer's disease have a shortage of some important chemicals, which are required in order to transmit messages within the brain. It is a progressive condition and symptoms become worse over time.   They can become disoriented about places and times and may suffer delusions, such as the idea that someone is stealing from them or that their spouse is being unfaithful, and become short-tempered and or hostile. During the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease the people can experience the following problems:

  • Language difficulties
  • Memory loss, particularly short-term
  • Time disorientation
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Lack of motivation
  • Signs of depression and aggression
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities

These early signs may be noticeable only to the sufferer and their close friends and family and the affected person may still be able to lead an independent life.

It is normal for age-related brain shrinkage to produce changes in processing speed, attention span, and short-term memory.  This creates so-called “senior moments” and forgetfulness is merely inconvenient. It is important to be able to recognise the difference between what is normal ageing and what is an early symptom of Alzheimer’s.

Symptoms that mimic early Alzheimer’s disease may result from:
Metabolic ailments, such as hypoglycemia, malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, dehydration and kidney or liver failure. Central nervous system and other degenerative disorders, including head injuries, brain tumours, strokes, epilepsy, Pick’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

Substance-induced conditions, such as drug interactions, medication side-effects, alcohol and drug abuse. Psychological factors, such as dementia syndrome, depression, emotional trauma, chronic stress, psychosis, chronic sleep deprivation and delirium.

Infections, such as meningitis, encephalitis, and syphilis. Since there is no single definitive medical test for identifying Alzheimer’s disease, arriving at the correct diagnosis can take time and patience. The most important step is to assess past and present functioning. Family history information, order medical tests, and estimations of the amount of memory loss using a variety of assessments will assist in diagnosing this disease.

During the late stages of the disease, patients begin to lose the ability to control motor functions such as swallowing or lose bowel and bladder control. Eventually, the ability to recognise family members and to speak is lost. As the disease progresses it further affects the person's emotions and behaviour and they develop symptoms such as aggression, agitation, depression, sleeplessness, or delusions.

It generally affects older people who are over the age of 65, however, it is possible to develop this disease at a much earlier age. On average, patients with Alzheimer's disease live for 8 to 10 years after they are diagnosed. However, some people live as long as 20 years. Patients with Alzheimer's disease often die of aspiration pneumonia because they lose the ability to swallow late in the course of the disease.