I’ve been told my mother may have Alzheimer’s disease and that it is a neurodegenerative disorder, but what does this mean? Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder, which causes the gradual loss of brain cells. Brain cells, which we take for granted everyday, gradually die in someone with Alzheimer’s and make it more and more difficult for them to carry out simple daily tasks. The loss of these brain cells can be identified by the formation of plaques and neurofibrillary tangles on the brain, these can be identified by using high power scans. Plaques are small, round areas, which form when the neurons (brain cells) are lost.
Neurofibrillary tangles form within the remaining neurons. Both the plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are present in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus in the brain. When Alzheimer’s has developed, scans can detect it, this is due to the fact that as the neurons are lost, the brain shrinks in size. This can only be used in the later stages, as there would be no noticeable signs in the earlier stages. Diagram 1 shows the comparison of a healthy brain and brain of someone with Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s brain is the shrunken one.
There are two main types of Alzheimer’s; early and late onset. Late onset is the most common form, it occurs in the elderly aged around 65-70 years old. Early onset occurs in people who are much younger, around 45 years old and upward. Early onset is very rare and occurs in about 5% of the population of people with dementia. What are the causes of Alzheimer’s disease? Many people believe that Alzheimer’s is a consequence of old age. This is true to an extent as Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, which accounts for around 50% of dementia in old people. A variety of factors can contribute to Alzheimer’s; these include environmental factors, gender, social status and genetics. All of these factors are not always present in every patient, but more often than often one or more can be identified.
Environmental factors – these include head traumas and injuries, which can occur through accidents like car crashes. Another environmental factor, which is thought to cause late onset Alzheimer’s, is Aluminium. Aluminium is found in cans and an overexposure to this may cause problems in later life. Gender specific – Alzheimer’s can be seen as gender specific as women are twice at risk as men are. This is because women usually live longer than men.
Socially specific – Alzheimer’s may also be socially specific, as it tends to affect less educated people. Genetics – these are factors, which are built into people. Approximately 35% are thought to be hereditary factors; this means that genes are passed from generation to generation. If both someone’s parents have Alzheimer’s then the child has 90% chance of developing the disease. Some people may have a specific gene which means they are predisposed to developing it.
A psychologist named Ghebremedhan and his colleagues in the year 2000 discovered that people who posses the E4 gene allele have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The E4 gene allele is thought to cause the formation of plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. There is also a very strong link to Down’s syndrome, these people always develop early onset Alzheimer’s.
What if any are the Telltale signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease? There is no exact way of identifying Alzheimer’s, as the symptoms are very similar to that of other forms of dementia. Some people who were at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s had tests carried out them by a psychologist named Linn and his colleagues in 1995. They found that these people had subtle deficits in learning and memory skills. These findings could show that before any of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s show, slight problems can still occur.
When people first develop Alzheimer’s disease they begin by forgetting names and common words. They may also have problems in learning new material and find it difficult to concentrate on one thing for a long period of time. A common sign of Alzheimer’s would be the failure to remember appointments, you and I may forget appointments occasionally then remember later, but someone with Alzheimer’s would forget and deny ever having an appointment when asked about it. This may lead to the person becoming irritated with them and others round about them. Many people may mistake this as the first signs of old age but the forgetfulness continues and often gets worse. This kind of impairment is called cognitive impairment. The word cognitive covers a variety of different aspects of the brain, including memory, reasoning, learning and judgement.
As the disease progresses, the patient may begin blaming others for personal mistakes and in severe cases some people may have delusions of being persecuted. The memory continues to deteriorate and the patient finds it harder and harder to recall names and places. Tasks like balancing a chequebook may become increasingly difficult causing the patient to become confused. If patients venture out themselves they may find themselves being lost or wandering aimlessly as they do not recognise the buildings or landmarks. They may also gain poor judgement, for example dressing without any regards to the weather. The patient may lose interest in social activities and home life and become passive. They may sit in front of the television for hours on end.
Two psychologists named Strauss and Ogracki in 1996, found that the more the disease develops, the more the patient is at risk of developing depression. This may be because they feel inadequate because they cannot carry out their normal daily tasks and find themselves relying on others. How will Alzheimer’s disease affect the daily lives of my mother and the people round about her? A psychologist named Eisdorfer and his colleagues in 1992, said that impairment in daily living activities occur in all stages throughout Alzheimer’s, from mild impairment to severe impairment. This can be difficulty with independent shopping and managing their finances to washing their hair.
In the early stages, daily life will not be affected a great deal. Due to the deterioration in memory, the patient and the people surrounding them may feel frustrated. The patient may often repeat him or herself and do things over and over again. But, instead of taking over their tasks, let them do as much as they can themselves. This helps them to not feel inadequate and keeps their brain active which is always a good thing in Alzheimer’s.