Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, around 60% of diagnoses in the UK, and is the most common form of young onset dementia, accounting for around a third of younger people with dementia.
A small number of people have an inherited form called Familial Alzheimer’s disease (FAD) which is caused by a faulty gene that runs within families. People with FAD typically first develop symptoms before the age of 65, most commonly in their 40s or 50s.
People with Down’s syndrome and other learning disabilities can also develop dementia at an early age. If people with Down’s syndrome develop dementia, it is usually Alzheimer’s disease.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
The exact cause is unknown but we do know that ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ form in the brain due to two proteins called amyloid (plaques) and tau (tangles).
Amyloid is a naturally occurring protein which for a reason that is not yet understood begins to malfunction, creating beta amyloid which is toxic to the brain cells. Plaques form consisting of dead cells and amyloid protein.
Tau protein naturally occurs in the brain and helps brain cells communicate with each other but for a reason that is not yet understood it can become abnormal and “clump together” leading to death of the brain cells affected.
People diagnosed with Alzheimer’s may additionally have a reduction of a chemical in the brain (called acetylcholine). This functions as a chemical messenger to take information to and from brain cells (neurons), so a reduction in this chemical leads to information not being transmitted effectively.
How does Alzheimer’s develop?
Research suggests that changes in the brain can occur up to ten years before a person starts to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The symptoms are usually mild at the beginning and gradually worsen over time. These may include:
difficulty remembering recent events while having a good memory for past events
difficulty recognising people or objects
poor organisation skills
slow, muddled or repetitive speech
withdrawal from family and friends
problems with decision making, problem solving, planning and sequencing tasks
Managing the effects of Alzheimer’s disease
Medication is available which may help slow progression but it does not prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease.
People with Alzheimer’s may be prescribed a type of medication called cholinesterase inhibitors. There are three options: Donepezil, Rivastigmine or Galantamine
These medications may improve concentration, which helps with memory, thinking and language. These effects can last for approximately 6-12 months, although there is now some evidence showing they can benefit a person for much longer. They support the communication between the nerve cells in the brain by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine
Memantine can also be prescribed in the moderate to severe stage of Alzheimer’s disease alongside one of the above medications. This medication blocks the effects of excess glutamate in the brain. Memantine can help with memory, reasoning, language and attention
What is dementia
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders, that is, conditions affecting the brain