Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. These symptoms occur when the brain is damaged by certain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. This factsheet describes the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, how it is diagnosed, and the factors that can put someone at risk of developing it. It also describes the treatments and support that are currently available.
Alzheimer’s disease, named after the doctor who first described it (Alois Alzheimer), is a physical disease that affects the brain. There are more than 520,000 people in the UK with Alzheimer’s disease. During the course of the disease, proteins build up in the brain to form structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. This leads to the loss of connections between nerve cells, and eventually to the death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue. People with Alzheimer’s also have a shortage of some important chemicals in their brain. These chemical messengers help to transmit signals around the brain. When there is a shortage of them, the signals are not transmitted as effectively. As discussed below, current treatments for Alzheimer’s disease can help boost the levels of chemical messengers in the brain, which can help with some of the symptoms.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. This means that gradually, over time, more parts of the brain are damaged. As this happens, more symptoms develop. They also become more severe.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are generally mild to start with, but they get worse over time and start to interfere with daily life.
There are some common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but it is important to remember that everyone is unique. Two people with Alzheimer’s are unlikely to experience the condition in exactly the same way.
For most people with Alzheimer’s, the earliest symptoms are memory lapses. In particular, they may have difficulty recalling recent events and learning new information. These symptoms occur because the early damage in Alzheimer’s is usually to a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which has a central role in day-to-day memory. Memory for life events that happened a long time ago is often unaffected in the early stages of the disease.
Memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease increasingly interferes with daily life as the condition progresses. The person may:
- lose items (eg keys, glasses) around the house
- struggle to find the right word in a conversation or forget someone’s name
- forget about recent conversations or events
- get lost in a familiar place or on a familiar journey
- forget appointments or anniversaries.
Although memory difficulties are usually the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s, someone with the disease will also have – or go on to develop – problems with other aspects of thinking, reasoning, perception or communication. They might have difficulties with:
- language – struggling to follow a conversation or repeating themselves
- visuospatial skills – problems judging distance or seeing objects in three dimensions; navigating stairs or parking the car become much harder
- concentrating, planning or organising – difficulties making decisions, solving problems or carrying out a sequence of tasks (eg cooking a meal)
- orientation – becoming confused or losing track of the day or date.
A person in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s will often have changes in their mood. They may become anxious, irritable or depressed. Many people become withdrawn and lose interest in activities and hobbies.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Alternative treatment advocates promote several vitamins and minerals as ways to treat AD. Supporters of these alternative treatments claim certain vitamins and minerals can prevent or stop AD. One such antioxidant is coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10. CoQ10 supplements are available in drug stores. This enzyme is important to normal healthy body functions, but it has never been studied as a way to treat AD, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Most people get enough calcium from their diet, but some people advocate coral calcium supplements as a treatment for AD. Coral calcium is typically derived from seashells and sea life, so the calcium supplement may contain trace amounts of other minerals. This supplement has not been shown to be beneficial in treating AD. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has filed a formal complaint against companies that promote coral calcium as a natural treatment for AD.
B Group Vitamins, Vitamin D and Vitamin E
A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed the B group vitamins, in particular, vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid, can help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. What was stated in the article is quite exciting for dementia sufferers as well as those wanting to prevent the disease…
“The fact that B-family vitamins may play a significant role in dementia, or more specifically in warding it off has been consistently illustrated. What is news from the current study, however, is that high-dose B-vitamin treatment in people at risk for the disease ‘slowed shrinkage of whole brain volume,’ and especially reduced shrinkage in areas known to be affected in Alzheimer’s disease.”
Vitamin B3 (niacin) and vitamin B6 are needed by the body to form neurotransmitters, making them crucial for the health and correct functioning of the nervous system and brain. B12 is essential for the production of substance known as myelin, the white sheath that surrounds nerve fibers. The B group vitamins, especially folic acid, also help to reduce homocysteine levels in the body, another major precursor of dementia and dementia related diseases.
A vitamin D deficiency has been repeatedly linked to brain problems such as poor memory and recall attainability. Researchers believe that vitamin D protects brain cells and may even be able to help damaged neurons regenerate. Vitamin D is also a strong anti-inflammatory and immune boosting nutrient. Because inflammation and low immunity are such powerful factors in the onset and development of dementia diseases, vitamin D could quite possibly be the most important and crucial nutrient for all dementia sufferers.
Vitamin E, on the other hand, has also been found to prevent and even treat dementia diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In fact, 60 years ago in the animal industry, farmers were actually able to prevent and cure Alzheimer’s disease in animals by feeding them high doses of vitamin E. Then after human studies on vitamin E and Alzheimer’s disease some 30 years later (we’re obviously a little slower to catch up) the University of California and the Salk Institute came out and said… “Vitamin E can ease memory loss in Alzheimer’s patientss”.