Alzheimer’s diesease is one of the conditions that leads to dementia.
What part of the brain is affected:
As connections between cells die, the cortex (the outer layer of the brain) begins to shrink. The hippocampus is located in the cortex. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that forms new memories, and is one of the first areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Eventually, as the disease progresses, it will take hold of other parts of the brain as well.
Watch this short video about Alzheimer’s disease.
- Increasing forgetfulness
- Mild confusion (in initial stages)
- Decline in short-term (recent) memory
- Repeating statements and questions over and over with no memory of already asking this
- Forgetting conversations and appointments
- Misplacing items and putting them in strange places
- Getting lost in familiar surroundings
- Word finding difficulties
- Thought expression difficulties
- Eventually forgetting the names and faces of family, and the names of everyday items
- Difficulty working with numbers and money
- Unable to make judgement calls – this can be very dangerous as there is no sense that food is burning on the stove top
- Eventually forgetting how to bathe and dress
- Socially withdrawn
- Irritated, mood swings, aggressions
- Change in sleeping patterns
- Depression, apathy
- Distrust of other, delusional
- Loss of inhibitions
What doesn’t change:
- Skills learnt early in life such as languages, crafts, music, dancing, and reading are not lost until the very end stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
- The person can still enjoy storytelling, and listening, and reminiscence.
- Interest in hobbies often remains.
- Studies now show that the more educated a person is, the lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is, and in those who do develop it they are better equipped at coping with brain deterioration, and are able to use their frontal lobes for recall, rather than the medial temporal lobes younger people use for recall.
- Approximately 33% of Alzheimer’s disease is caused by environmental and lifestyle factors. There is also a percentage of cases that are genetic. Unfortunately ageing is one of the largest risk factors of developing Alzheimer’s disease. But that does not mean that just because you reach 100 that you will develop Alzheimer’s – as mentioned environment, lifestyle and genetics also play a part.
- One of the biggest concerns as the disease progresses is that the person can no longer verbally communicate their dislikes or pain. This is where patient family members, and skilled experts, are able to ensure respect and quality of life in the final years.
Physical brain changes (neurofibrillary tangles) in Alzheimer’s can only be seen via an MRI scan. Although there are many psychological tests and mini-mental state exams, these can never provide a 100% accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease:
Learning to go with the flow will result in much better outcomes for the carers and the person who is living with Alzheimer’s disease. You will not be able to reason with someone as the disease progresses, so don’t exhaust yourself trying to. Expecting your loved one to understand day-to-day life as you know it is unrealistic. Be gentle and understand them. Live in their world with them, rather than expecting them to live in your reality. And remember, your loved one is still the same person they always were. Treat them with respect and love.
 Horstman J. The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain, 2012.
Other information from: The Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.org).