At the Pasqual Maragall Foundation we are investigating the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and its prevention, but today there are still many doubts over the disease. Here you can find information on some of the questions that we are able to answer.
What is dementia? Is it the same as Alzheimer’s disease?+
We talk about dementia when a person experiences a series of symptoms which involve the gradual and progressive loss of memory, thought and mental abilities in general. Dementia is therefore not a disease in itself, but rather a term which covers different types of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?+
Alzheimer’s disease is a disease of the brain which is not contagious, but is progressive and irreversible and alters the personality and gradually destroys a person’s memory, as it does their capacity to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out their daily activities. These skills are lost as a consequence of the death of a type of cell in the brain, called the neuron.
What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease?+
It is not easy to give a list of symptoms of the disease. However we must be alert if anyone in our environment experiences the following situations that are typical of Alzheimer’s disease:
- Forgetfulness or difficulty in remembering recent information – what they have eaten or what they have done during the day. Forgetting important dates or events, the day of the week or the present year.
- Loop repetition of the same subject or question – where are we going tomorrow or who is coming to visit.
- Difficulty in following instructions, doing the household accounts, taking their medication correctly, cooking, doing the shopping or getting dressed.
- Requiring the help of other people to do things that they previously did alone or needing a lot of time to do them.
- Difficulty in getting around known places – like not knowing how to get home when they have gone out shopping or mistaking the places where they have just been or those where they are at the time.
- Confusing with the identity of others and difficulty in appreciating time passing – like confusing present acquaintances with those of the past.
- Difficulties in following a conversation. Showing impoverished language, often finding difficulty in naming daily objects or leaving a conversation halfway through without being aware.
- Loss of important personal objects or money.
- Alterations in judgment which allows them to be easily deceived by other people.
- Alterations in care and personal hygiene and that of the household.
- Lack of interest or difficulty in doing activities that the person liked doing before.
- Loss of interest in social interaction with other people. Difficulty in interpreting jokes or other people’s moods.
- Personality changes – the person often becomes less trusting and even aggressive or may be depressed and cry for no apparent reason.
- Nervousness in new settings or situations which the person has difficulty in controlling.
Consequences of ageing+
- Occasionally forgetting important dates – birthdays, programmed activities such as going to see the doctor.
- Making occasional mistakes in the activities of daily life – like cooking- and being aware of what they have done.
- Needing help to use new devices – mobile phones, vending machines or electrical appliances.
- Finding difficulty in finding the right word in a conversation, but being aware of what they want to say.
- Occasionally losing things and being aware that the most likely thing is that they have lost them themselves, and generally being capable of finding them.
- Occasionally taking the wrong decisions.
- Stopping doing social activities or hobbies simply because they do not want to or are tired of them.
- Being accustomed to doing activities in a certain way and feeling uncomfortable with change.
- Becoming less tolerant with others or acquiring more solitary habits.
- Feeling less attracted by new things or requiring highly repetitive life habits.
- Feeling mentally less agile or having greater difficulty in learning new things.
Is there a cure? What is the treatment for Alzheimer’s disease?+
There is no treatment to slow down or alter the progress of the disease. There are medicines that can help to temporarily palliate the symptoms, the most common being Rivastigmine (Prometax, Exelon), Memantine (Ebixa, Axura), Donepezil (Aricept) and Galantamine (Reminyl).
If there is no cure, why is it so important to diagnose it?+
Having a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease helps the patients themselves to make future plans and take their own decisions before they are unable to do so. The diagnosis is key to helping the sick person and their health. A loss of memory is not necessarily a diagnosis of the disease. A visit to the neurologist will allow them to examine symptoms and possibly rule out a different and potentially treatable cause. If the disease is diagnosed, the sick person and their caregivers will have all of the right care and treatment in temporarily improving the symptoms.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?+
Unlike what happened with many other diseases, at the present time we do not know the ultimate cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
Who is most affected by this disease: men or women?+
There is no tendency for the disease to appear in one sex more often than the other. If a larger number of sick women appear in the statistics, it is mainly due to the fact that women’s life expectancy is longer than men’s.
Does Alzheimer’s disease vary from one person to another?+
Yes, the disease affects each person differently. Neither the duration, nor the speed of the decline is equal for all patients. Although the same pattern is repeated, the impact and symptoms depend on each sick person and therefore the personality, physical conditions and social situation of each patient are especially important. This is why each family has to find their own way of living with the disease. Furthermore, in some people, Alzheimer’s disease is accompanied by other pre-existing health problems which might make care more difficult. In such a situation, the doctor must be consulted to advise family members on the best way to manage all diseases.
Is Alzheimer’s disease hereditary?+
In the vast majority of cases of Alzheimer’s disease – 99% – genes are not solely responsible for the disease. Therefore, having a mother or a father with the disease does not necessarily mean that the children will have it. We can rarely attribute a genetic cause to Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, the inherited form of the disease accounts for only 1% of all cases of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers.
Given that practically all of the cases of Alzheimer’s disease are not hereditary, none of the volunteers in the Alfa study are members of families with this kind of hereditary Alzheimer’s disease.
What can I do to reduce the risk?+
We have more and more signs which indicate that preventing Alzheimer’s disease is in our hands. By following this advice, it is calculated that we could avoid almost 1 out of every 3 sufferers.
- You should look after your heart: did you know that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain? Do sport, have an active social life, eat healthily and give your brain challenges (memory games, reading…). These are little things that can be our best weapon aigainst Alzheimer’s disease.
- You can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by changing your habits. Do away with sedentary life. Control your blood pressure. Avoid excesses, excessive weight and do not smoke.
Which is the better for a patient? At home or in a nursing facility?+
An early diagnosis will allow a patient to express their wishes in this regard before it is impossible for them to take decisions. The person may remain in their home provided they have the necessary human and health support for their well-being; however, as the disease progresses, giving this care may become more and more complicated.
There are alternatives and resources to receive help from professionals when it comes time to sharing caregiving responsibilities with the caregiver: day centres, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and in-home help.
Choosing a 24-hour care facility may be an alternative to be decided between the primary caregiver, the family and the doctor, with the express will of the patient. The decision to take the sick person to a more protective environment is not an easy one.
For the family caregiver, this decision is very hard and painful. Even so, the well-being of the patient must prevail and they must receive the best care available to them. In this sense, a nursing facility may be the option that best adapts to the needs of all those involved.