It’s the most common form of dementia and rates are rising, but how much do you really know about this complex neurological disease?
Alzheimer’s affects thousands of people in the UK and almost everybody’s heard of it, but this debilitating and complex condition is still often misunderstood – and that’s why it’s important to learn Alzheimer’s facts, signs and how to decrease your risk.
In our guide
- What is Alzheimer’s disease?
- What are the signs of Alzheimer’s?
- Alzheimer’s facts and FAQs
- How to decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological disorder in which the death of brain cells causes memory loss and cognitive decline. It is the most common type of dementia, affecting between 50 and 75 per cent of those diagnosed. The symptoms of the disease usually progress slowly over several years, so at first they can appear mild, but become more severe over time.
It is important to remember that everyone is unique and that two people with Alzheimer’s are unlikely to experience the condition in exactly the same way. But while a few memory lapses are a normal part of ageing, there are some common warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease that can help you to determine if it’s something more serious.
Classed as a neurological disorder, it causes memory loss and cognitive decline, which usually starts slowly and gradually worsens over time.
Understanding what it’s really like to live with Alzheimer’s can be difficult, as there’s lots of misinformation about the disease and many myths still prevail, making knowing Alzheimer’s facts vital. For instance, it’s not strictly just an ailment associated with older age, as around 5% of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the UK are under 65.
What are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease?
Subtle short-term memory loss
For most people with Alzheimer’s, the first symptoms emerge in the form of memory lapses. In particular, look out for short-term memory loss in loved ones; many people with Alzheimer’s can perfectly recall events from the past, but have trouble remembering recent events such as what they had for breakfast. This is because Alzheimer’s causes damage to a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which has an important role in day-to-day memory and retaining new information.
Struggling to complete everyday tasks
“Many of us know Alzheimer’s as a disease that causes memory loss like forgetting names or the day of the week,” Aileen Waton, head of dementia for Bupa Care Services explains. “But this can also present itself through people losing track of money or being unable to manage bills, as their memory and reasoning skills decline.” Along with struggling to keep on top of household duties, they may find change and following new routines difficult too.
Struggling to find the right words
Memory loss can increasingly interfere with daily life, particularly when it comes to conversation. You might notice a loved one struggles to find the right words to express themselves, gets the meaning of words mixed up or that speaking to them takes longer than usual.
As symptoms appear, you may notice that you or a loved one exhibits changes in mood that could be out of character for them. “You might notice distracted or unusual behaviour, such as angry outbursts or a loved one becoming depressed or anxious,” says Waton. “Others might lack their usual spontaneity or even exhibit changes to their preferences in food and drink.”
“Likewise, Alzheimer’s can also lead to confusion,” she says. “Some people might go for a walk, and not remember where they are or how to get home. Other might think that possessions have been hidden or stolen.”
Repetition is a common early symptom which is triggered by memory loss. The person may repeat daily tasks, such as locking the front door, showering or cleaning. Look out for repetition in conversation too; they may tell the same story multiple times or ask the same question after hearing the answer.
We all know that Alzheimer’s causes changes to the brain, but it also can impact a person’s eyesight. Vision problems such as an increased difficulty in reading or problems judging distance aren’t always easy to spot, but are a concern because more than 60% of those with Alzheimer’s will have a decline in visual capacity.
What to do if you have signs of Alzheimer’s?
“It’s important to seek medical advice as soon as possible, if you’re seeing a loved one demonstrating these behaviours,” says Waton.
“Unfortunately there’s not currently a cure for Alzheimer’s, or a way of halting its progression. That’s why it’s so important that people are aware on the simple changes they can make to help assist people with Alzheimer’s.”
Although Alzheimer’s presents challenges, Waton says that there are some easy and practical ways we can support people living with the disease: “For example, we can help them to stay physically and mentally active, or help with developing coping strategies like making lists, labels and reminders that can lessen the impact of memory loss.”
She believes that the way we communicate with people can also play a large part in managing Alzheimer’s. “Group conversations can be hard to follow for people with Alzheimer’s, so try and stick to one-on-one conversations where possible,” she advises. “Likewise, minimise background distractions where possible, for example by turning off the TV or radio.”
Alzheimer’s facts and FAQs
Dementia is the name for a group of symptoms that commonly include problems with memory, thinking, problem-solving, language and perception. It’s caused by different diseases that affect the brain, one of which is Alzheimer’s.
The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells that connect to each other and in Alzheimer’s disease, the vital connections between these cells are lost. Currently, Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia in the UK.
Age is the biggest risk factor for developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s, but it isn’t a natural part of growing older and not everyone will get it, which means other factors are involved too.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are things you can do to help reduce your risk, such as getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet.
Some health bloggers have claimed that coconut oil can reverse memory decline in Alzheimer’s disease, but the Alzheimer’s Society says there is little evidence to support this.
The theory is that the brain cells in people with Alzheimer’s disease are unable to use glucose to produce energy properly, and coconut oil has been cited as an alternative energy source for the brain. “The claims are based on a couple of single cases but there isn’t enough research to show whether it can really help,” says Dr Clare Walton, research communications manager at Alzheimer’s Society.
“A US trial began looking into the relationship between coconut oil and dementia, but it was cancelled due to a lack of participants… More high-quality research needs to be done before we can recommend coconut oil for people with Alzheimer’s disease.”
It’s one of the more surprising Alzheimer’s facts, but there are twice as many women with Alzheimer’s disease than there are men – but because overall dementia risk increases with age, one possible explanation could be that women live longer on average, and therefore have more years to develop and get diagnosed with the disease.
However, there is also a theory that loss of the hormone oestrogen after women go through the menopause may be linked to Alzheimer’s.
“Oestrogen plays an important role in the brain, and so declining levels after menopause may make the brain more susceptible to Alzheimer’s,” says Dr Walton. “Oestrogen has been found to increase the number of connections in the memory centre of the brain, and there’s evidence that it may protect against the build-up of toxins.”
That said, Dr Walton says we don’t yet have enough evidence to recommend HRT (hormone replacement therapy) as a preventative against dementia in post-menopausal women.
One study carried out by researchers from Tel Aviv University and Northwestern University put forward the idea that cinnamon bark extracts were able to prevent and even reverse Alzheimer’s disease in mouse and fruit fly models of the disease.
However, the volume of raw cinnamon a person would have to eat to replicate the results of many of the experiments would likely be toxic, and the study authors noted that more research is needed to determine a conclusive link between cinnamon and Alzheimer’s.
A diet high in vegetables, fruit and whole grains and healthy fats, and low in meat and sugar, has long been touted for its general health benefits – and the good news is it can also help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
High levels of antioxidants from fruit and veg may help to protect against some of the damage to brain cells associated with Alzheimer’s disease. A Mediterranean diet also includes lots of oily fish, and the omega-3 oils in these are known to help keep brain cells healthy.
The Alzheimer’s Society says that research into fish oil supplements shows they don’t have the same effect as the real thing, so make sure you’re getting enough of the real deal.
As tempting as it may be to curl up with a glass of Pinot Noir after a long day and call it medicinal, the ‘protective’ qualities of red wine might not be totally beneficial to brain health. There’s only a small body of evidence which suggests that some of the chemicals found in red wine may be good for the brain, and it’s not really clear whether this could help reduce dementia risk.
Heavy alcohol consumption over a long period of time, however, has been linked to an increased Alzheimer’s risk, so moderate drinkers shouldn’t feel encouraged to reach for another bottle.
How to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
One of the more overlooked Alzheimer’s facts is that the disease isn’t hereditary and there are ways you can lower your risk of developing this form of dementia.
Bupa’s global director of dementia care, Professor Graham Stokes, says: “Given its prevalence, people often ask me whether they’ll develop it because their relatives have the disease. The good news is that Alzheimer’s isn’t hereditary – just because it’s in your family, it doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily develop it too.”
While it mainly affects older people, there are still things you can do to help lower your chances of developing Alzheimer’s. Here’s what Graham recommends:
Few people need to be told that smoking’s bad for their health, but it’s less widely known that the habit increases their chances of developing Alzheimer’s. That’s because smoking is linked with cardiovascular problems which can contribute to the disease.
Cutting out smoking won’t just reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s – it could stop you getting a whole host of other illnesses too.
Again, this is key to maintaining a healthy heart, which in turn decreases your chances of Alzheimer’s. Some studies have suggested that a Mediterranean diet (plant-based with seafood, whole grains, nuts and olive oil) can have a positive impact, but any balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables will reduce your chances.
Stay in formal education
One of the Alzheimer’s facts that often surprises people, but studies have shown there’s a clear link between the length of time a person spends in formal education and their risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The longer we spend in education when we’re younger, the less likely we are to develop the disease.
There’s also research to suggest that learning a new language or starting a short course in adult years may protect against the risk of getting dementia.
At present though, there’s less solid evidence around the impact of brain training games, like Sudoku or puzzles.
Keep active and find hobbies
Exercise is a great all-rounder for lowering your chances of Alzheimer’s. On the one hand, it helps keep a healthy heart, but additional research has shown that participating in different activities and hobbies can lower your risk.
Group activities like tennis, bowling or joining a walking group will not only keep you physically healthy, but can also improve your social wellbeing, which again appears to reduce the chances of Alzheimer’s.
Manage any existing health conditions
It’s also vital to recognise the warning signs of Alzheimer’s – getting muddled and forgetting names and dates, and becoming distracted or showing unusual behaviour, like angry outbursts. While there’s currently no cure for the condition, there are things we can do to assist people with the condition and reduce the impact.
Alzheimer’s Society is a partner in Join Dementia Research (joindementiaresearch.nihr.ac.uk), a nationwide service that allows people to register their interest in participating in dementia research and be matched to suitable studies.
For more information on risk factors, Alzheimer’s facts and dementia research, visit Alzheimers.org.uk.