Alzheimer's disease attacks nerves, brain cells and neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry messages to and from the brain), affecting the way your brain functions, your memory and the way you behave. It is also the most common form of dementia. Dementia is a syndrome (a group of symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline in mental abilities.
While the exact cause is unknown, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease may be increased by:
- increasing age
- a family history of the condition
- previous severe head injuries
- lifestyle factors and conditions associated with vascular disease.
If you are worried that you may have Alzheimer's disease then visit your doctor. They will want to know about any new or worsening problems you may have noticed such as:
- speech problems such as difficulty finding the right words
- difficulty in understanding what people are saying
- personality and mood changes
- difficulty with performing everyday routine activities.
There is no single test that can be used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. If your doctor suspects you may have Alzheimer’s disease they may refer you to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s disease is a physical disease and not a mental disorder. Treatment options involve medications that can help delay its development according to the severity of your disease.
The healthcare professionals who are treating you will also aim to keep you living as independently as possible. They will do this by identifying areas where you may need some assistance with your day-to-day activities including:
- whether you can drive safely
- whether you can wash, dress and feed yourself
- whether you have a support network, such as family and friends
- whether you need any financial assistance.
Alzheimer’s Australia operates a National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500, while their website www.fightdementia.org.au offers information on all forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Each person’s experience of Alzheimer’s disease will be different. When a person with dementia finds that their mental abilities are declining, they're likely to feel anxious, stressed and scared.
The onset of Alzheimer’s disease is usually quite gradual, and symptoms also appear gradually but progressively worsen as the disease spreads in the brain.
There are several steps you can take which may help delay the onset of dementia such as:
- cutting down on smoking and alcohol
- eating a healthy balanced diet
- having regular health tests as you get older
- staying physically and mentally active.
If you have Alzheimer’s disease you may find it useful to:
- write yourself reminders and keep a diary
- pin a weekly timetable to the wall
- put your keys in an obvious place, such as in a large bowl in your living room
- install safety devices, such as gas detectors and smoke alarms, throughout your home.
There are also cognitive stimulation programs available that involve taking part in activities and exercises to improve your memory, problem-solving skills and language ability.
If you are caring for someone with dementia, you will want to do everything you can to reassure and support them while helping them retain some level of independence.
While there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, research is continuing and as more is revealed about the condition, other ways to treat or prevent it may be found.
Sources: Alzheimer’s Australia (Types of dementia, Dementia facts), NHS Choices, UK (Alzheimer's disease, Caring for someone with dementia, Alzheimer's disease - Treatment, Alzheimer's disease - Prevention)
Facts & figures
- In 2011, there were an estimated 298,000 people with dementia in Australia. Dementia is a leading cause of death, accounting for 6% of all deaths in 2010.
- Alzheimer's disease is most common in people over 65 years of age, and affects slightly more women than men. However, there were an estimated 23,900 Australians who had early-onset dementia under the age of 65 in 2011.
- Dementia poses a substantial challenge to health, aged care and social policy. Based on projections of population ageing and growth, the number of people with dementia will reach almost 400,000 by 2020.