Almost half a mil ion people in the UK live with Alzheimer's disease. Here we explain causes and symptoms and suggest activities that may help lower your risk.
This condition is the most common cause of dementia and is characterised by the formation of protein ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ in the brain, which kill off brain cells. It is also a progressive disease, meaning the extent of the damage gradually increases over time – and the symptoms also therefore inevitably worsen. The name of the disease comes from the German neurologist Alois Alzheimer, who first described it in 1906. Today it affects around 496,000 people in the UK, according to the Alzheimer’s Society, a UK-based charity with 25,000 members. What causes it? No one single factor has been identified as a cause of Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is likely that an individual’s overall risk is related to a combination of factors including:
Age is the most important known risk factor. One in 14 people over the age of 65 and one in six over the age of 80 are affected by dementia. The influence of inherited genes seems to be relatively small in the vast majority of cases in older people. However, in some families where the disease appears relatively early in life, there appears to be clear evidence for the role of genetic inheritance. There are more than 17,000 people under 65 with dementia in the UK and the Alzheimer’s Society says this figure is likely to be an underestimate. Smoking, having high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels or diabetes all raise the risk. A study of 2,587 adults published in the journal Neurology in 2011 by
researchers at Kyushu University in Japan found that brain plaques were found in autopsies of 86 percent of people who had high cholesterol in adulthood compared to 62 percent of people with low cholesterol. It has also been suggested that having an active life with many interests and hobbies may reduce the risk, as may a higher level of education. A study of 1,433 elderly people by La Colombière Hospital in Montpellier, France, published in the British Medical Journal in 2010, found that a good education could cut the risk of Alzheimer’s by 18 percent. People with Down’s syndrome who live into their 50s or beyond are at high risk due to their chromosomal abnormality. Anyone who has suffered severe head or whiplash injuries and boxers who receive many punches to the head also appear to be at increased risk How can I lower my risk of Alzheimer’s disease? Alzheimer’s Research UK, the country’s leading dementia research charity, recommends the following measures to keep healthy and reduce your risk: Exercising regularly; not smoking; achieving and maintaining a healthy weight; controlling high blood pressure; reducing your cholesterol level; controlling your blood glucose if you have diabetes; eating a healthy, balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables and low amounts of saturated fat; only drinking alcohol within the recommended limits What are the symptoms? People who develop Alzheimer’s disease tend to show a variety of symptoms that can prove devastating for them and their families. Typical early symptoms include:
Regularly forgetting recent events, names and faces
Regularly misplacing items or putting them in odd places
Disorientation, especially away from your normal surroundings
Reduced judgement such as being unaware of danger
Mood or behaviour problems such as apathy, irritability, or losing confidence.
Symptoms worsen as the disease progresses. Sufferers may have problems with everyday tasks such as counting loose change or working a TV remote control. Communication problems or loss of confidence can lead to sufferers becoming more withdrawn and eventually they will need help with all their daily activities. How can Alzheimer’s disease be treated? At present there is no cure, but there are drug treatments that can temporarily alleviate some symptoms or slow their progression in some people. People with Alzheimer’s have a shortage of a chemical called acetylcholine, which is involved in sending messages around the brain. Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl are three drugs that work by maintaining existing supplies of this chemical. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends them as options for people in the mild-to-moderate stages of the disease. Side effects are usually minor but may include diarrhoea, nausea, insomnia, fatigue and loss of appetite.
Ebixa is the only drug recommended for people in both the moderate and severe stages of the condition. It works by blocking a messenger chemical called glutamate, which is released in damagingly large amounts. Side effects may include dizziness, headaches and tiredness and, on rare occasions, hallucinations or confusion. These drugs may stabilise some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, typically for six to 12 months or longer.
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