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Alzheimer's Disease

Information for patients and carers

What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive physical disease of the brain.  It affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities due to problems in mental functioning. 

What are the symptoms?
The most common presenting symptoms are problems in memory.  People with Alzheimer’s disease usually become forgetful and may have difficulty learning new information and remembering events in the past.  There may also be problems in language.  Sufferers often have difficulty finding the right words and sometimes struggle to understand complicated speech or instructions.  Visual abilities can be affected.  Although Alzheimer’s disease does not directly affect eyesight sufferers can have difficulty locating objects and may become easily lost in unfamiliar surroundings.  People with Alzheimer’s disease can become clumsier, with difficulty in dressing, cooking and using household gadgets.  Basic personality remains relatively intact, although people with Alzheimer’s disease may show a reduction in their confidence and become less socially outgoing because of their difficulties.  Some people may show an increase in irritability. Despite the changes in mental functioning, people with Alzheimer’s disease typically remain physically well until the advanced stages of the disease. 

Are the symptoms the same for all sufferers?
There are individual differences.  For example, one person may have particularly severe problems in memory and another person more difficulties in verbal expression. Sometimes people have symptoms in only one area (e.g. memory, language or vision) for several years before developing any other symptoms. Recognising these differences is very important in clinical diagnosis and in research into the illness. 

Will the symptoms become worse?
The disease is progressive, so symptoms do worsen over time.  However, there is wide variation in the speed of progression.  Some people show little decline over the course of a year whereas others change more quickly.  Usually, monitoring a person’s progress over a year will give a good guide as to the likely future rate of progression.

At what age are people affected?
Alzheimer’s disease becomes more common with increasing age.  However, it is certainly not confined to old age and many people begin to show symptoms in their 50s and 60s, or even earlier.  The terms ‘early-onset’ and ‘late-onset’ are sometimes used to distinguish Alzheimer’s disease beginning before or after the age of 65. 

What causes the disease?
The disorder is a degenerative condition of the brain. This means that cells in certain parts of the brain gradually cease to function properly, which is why symptoms develop. The cause of this degeneration is at present not fully understood and is the key question for current research. However we know that this condition is not caused by external environmental or lifestyle factors, such as diet, occupational exposure or head injury. It can affect people from all walks of life and is not simply the result of ‘over-use’ or ‘under-use’ of the brain.

Is the disease inherited?
Typically, no.  The majority of patients have no family history of the illness.  However occasionally it can run in families. Gene mutations have been discovered that account for these familial cases.  If you have particular queries or concerns please let us know.  Our colleagues in the Genetics department are happy to provide individual advice.

Can the disease be treated?
Current treatments do not provide a cure for the disease.  However, there are drugs available, which are designed to alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of disease.  The drugs work by preventing loss of a brain chemical called acetylcholine, which is important for memory and thinking.  This chemical is known to be reduced in Alzheimer’s disease.  A doctor in your local area, usually an Old Age Psychiatrist, will prescribe the appropriate drugs so that its effects can be closely monitored.

Is there any research into the condition?
Yes, certainly. The interest in this area of research increases each year. The aim is to understand the mechanisms that underlie this disorder, so that better treatments can be developed. Our department is an active contributor to research in Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative disorders. If you would like to find out more about the research carried out in our unit, please visit our website (details on back page) or ask when you attend the clinic.