Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological condition in which the death of brain cells causes memory loss and cognitive decline. In 2019, Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, was ranked as the second leading cause of death in Australia among older people – almost equal to the mortality rate of heart disease. A progressive form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease affects the mental, social, and emotional well-being of an individual to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.

In this article, we share an overview of Alzheimer’s disease, including its symptoms, causes, and types.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Affecting 1 in 10 Australians over the age of 65 years, and 3 in 10 Australians over 85, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of ageing. It is a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and, eventually, the ability to carry out daily routine tasks. What begins as mild forgetfulness and confusion, will eventually progress to complete memory loss, language problems, difficulty in making decisions, and even personality changes.

With major disruptions to cognitive functioning – which includes the ability to think, remember and reason, those affected will find it more difficult to remember recent events and to recognise people they know. As a result, a person with Alzheimer’s disease may need full-time assistance. While this disease may not have a cure, there are still treatments that can slow down the progression of the disease.

Causes of the Alzheimer’s disease

Similar to the different types of dementia, the development of Alzheimer’s is first caused by the death of neuronal or brain cells that targets the outer part of the brain (usually associated with learning and short-term memory). The following are several causes of the disease;

  • Neuronal death causes shrinking in the outer layer of the brain.
  • Amyloid plaques are deposits outside the brain cells — they cause interference in cell-to-cell communication and the eventual death of the cell.
  • Neurofibrillary tangles are deposits inside the brain cells — they cause the abnormal twisting of ‘tau’ protein strands which are responsible for transportation of nerve signals. Due to the lack of food and energy received by the cells, they eventually die.
  • Genetic mutations in 3 genes have been found to increase the production of amyloid plaques.
  • Poor lifestyle factors in which studies have identified a relationship between cognitive decline and vascular (E.g., heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure) as well as other conditions such as diabetes and obesity.  

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Early on, Alzheimer’s disease may be hard to notice. Often expressed in more ways than just memory loss or difficulty recalling information, common symptoms include;

  • Apathy or the distinct lack of pleasure or interests in activities that once excited them
  • Difficulty taking in and retaining new information, leading to recurring questions or conversations
  • Vagueness in daily conversation or disrupted speech, writing or speaking due to difficulty with common words
  • Wandering or getting lost in well-known places
  • Taking a longer period to complete regular or daily tasks
  • Decline in social skills
  • Forgetting well-known people
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Impulsive or unpredictable behaviour
  • Abrupt emotional changes
  • Frequently losing objects and forgetting about events and appointments
  • Difficulty completing complex tasks with multiple stages like getting dressed
  • Poor judgement, which includes a reduced understanding of safety and risks
  • Loss of empathy
  • Problems with spatial awareness that leads to regular tripping over, falling and spilling of items.

What are the types of Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is classified into different subtypes according to severity and type of onset. The following are the three most common types;

Familial Alzheimer’s disease (FAD)

Also referred to as ‘hereditary’ as well as younger onset dementia, this rare form of Alzheimer’s is found in 5% of those who develop the disease. Often, in their 40s or 50s when they’re diagnosed with the disease, FAD is typically attributed to genetic mutation. In families that are affected, members of at least two generations have had the disease.

Late onset Alzheimer’s or Sporadic Alzheimer’s

This common type of Alzheimer’s arises from a complex series of changes to the brain that may occur over decades. Scientists are still working to identify its cause, so not much information has been disclosed as of yet. However, a common denominator points to a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

It is important to note that considering memory naturally deteriorates with age, many people who have trouble with memory may not necessarily have Alzheimer’s — so it’s important to visit a doctor to work out the exact cause of memory problems.

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