Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurological disease which destroys the important brain functions including memory. The disease is commonly seen in people aged above 65 years.

Symptoms develop gradually and become severe over several years.

  • Memory loss (first sign of Alzheimer's disease. Severity increases gradually)
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Difficulty with language and speech
  • Difficulty in taking decisions
  • Personality changes (e.g. aggressiveness, suspicion on others, hallucinations, low mood, anxiety, etc.)

The exact cause of the disease is not known. It is believed that the cause of Alzheimer’s disease could be genetic factors, environmental and lifestyle changes which gradually affect the brain.

The disease causes the death or damage to the brain cells. The surviving cells have fewer inter-connections compared to those in the healthy brain. As the number of dead cells increase, the brain size starts to shrink.

Below are the factors which increase your risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease

  • Family history: Your risk is especially high if any of your first-degree relatives (parents or siblings) has the disease.
  • Gender: Females are more likely to develop the disease attributed in part to their long-life.
  • Down syndrome: The signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease appear nearly 10 to 20 years in advance, in people with Down syndrome.
  • Lifestyle and heart conditions: Certain lifestyle factors which increase your risk for heart disease can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. These include smoking, obesity, lack of physical activity, high blood pressure, and cholesterol, etc.
  • History of severe head injuries.

It is a challenging task for the doctors to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. A timely diagnosis gives the best chance to receive better treatment and support. But there is no specific confirmatory test for Alzheimer’s disease.

The doctor considers your symptoms and the information you provide and performs the below tests to check if you have Alzheimer’s disease.

TestPurpose of the test
Physical examination and neurological health To check your reflexes, balance, coordination, hearing, and vision, muscle strength and tone, etc
Lab tests To exclude other conditions with similar symptoms, such as vitamin deficiency or thyroid problems
Brain imaging To identify specific changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. These studies include MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), CT scan (Computerized Tomography), PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and cerebrospinal fluid examination.

There is no treatment available to cure Alzheimer’s disease. However, medications to relieve the symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease are available.

Cholinesterase inhibitors: These drugs increase the communications between the surviving brain cells by producing the required chemical called acetylcholine. They can improve the symptoms such as agitation and depression. Most common drugs prescribed include donepezil, galantamine, and rivastigmine.

Memantine: It may be used either alone or in combination with the cholinesterase inhibitors to slow down the progression of the disease and symptoms.

SAntidepressants: These medications help to manage behavioral symptoms.

Home remedies may not cure the condition but help in maintaining better health during the treatment. So include the following in your wellness plan:

  • Regular exercise, especially which benefits heart
  • Diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and low in fat
  • Intellectual stimulation and social interactions
  • Due to the lack of proper communication, the patient may not be able to communicate any health problem clearly to the physician, thereby complicating the treatment.
  • With the progress of the disease, functions such as swallowing, bowel and bladder control, balance get affected. Thus, the patient becomes more vulnerable to falls, fractures, bedsores, inhalation of food into the lungs (aspiration), etc.

As the patient with Alzheimer’s disease has mixed emotions, coping with the disease may be difficult. Caretakers should provide support to such patients by listening to them, assuring them of betterment, protecting their dignity, keeping their surroundings calm and stable, etc.