Alzheimer’s Symptoms, Stages & How to Help
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia in the UK and can affect multiple brain functions.
It is estimated that one in every 14 people in the UK aged 65 years and over has Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is a cruel and unfair disease. In this article, we’ll help you to understand more about this degenerative brain condition including what it is, what causes Alzheimer’s, symptoms, stages and ways to support a friend or family member who has received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
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What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive brain disease that affects an individual’s memory, thinking, and behaviour over time. It’s most common in those over the age of 65 years old, but can affect those younger, too.
What is early-onset Alzheimer's?
Early-onset or young-onset Alzheimer’s is when someone under the age of 65 develops the disease; around 5% of people with Alzheimer’s are between 40-65 years old, it has also been known to affect those in their 30s, however this is very rare.
Symptoms and signs of Alzheimer's
The most common symptom of Alzheimer's is having a problem with memory; a person might forget a recent conversation or have difficulty remembering the name of objects, people or places.
As mentioned, because it’s a progressive condition, symptoms develop gradually and become more severe. Other Alzheimer’s disease symptoms can include:
- Feeling confused or disorientated
- Difficulty making decisions
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Changes to an individual’s personality (becoming aggressive, demanding or suspicious of others)
- Hallucinations or delusions
- Low mood and anxiety
Stages of Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease typically presents as three stages – early, middle and late. As the disease affects people differently, symptoms at each stage can differ from person to person. On average, people live for four to eight years after a diagnosis but some people live as long as 20 years.
During this first stage, the individual will likely be able to function independently and will only have subtle symptoms. They may have memory lapses and other difficulties like:
- Remembering people’s names
- Frequently losing or misplacing things
- Troubling with planning or organising
The middle stage of Alzheimer’s disease can last for many years as the disease progresses. It’s here that symptoms become gradually more pronounced and the individual may require help with simple everyday tasks. Symptoms can include:
- General confusion and disorientation
- Forgetting events, conversations and memories
- Trouble controlling their bladder and bowels
- Tendency to wander and get lost
- Becoming withdrawn
- Personality changes like repetitive behaviour and suspiciousness
This is also called severe Alzheimer’s and is the final stage of the condition. Individuals become unable to respond to their environments and unable to hold a conversation. They will have significant difficulty speaking and may only be able to utter a few words at a time. Other issues include:
- A need for constant 24-hour care and assistance with simple tasks
- Decreased physical movement – difficulty walking, sitting and swallowing
- Becoming unaware of their surroundings
- Difficulty communicating
What causes Alzheimer's?
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease isn’t fully understood. It is thought to be caused by an abnormal build up of proteins around the brain and a decrease in neurotransmitters that send messages to the brain. For most people, a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors play a part in causation.
There are a number of risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, including:
- Age – the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after you turn 65
- A family history of the condition and genetics
- Down’s syndrome
- Head trauma
- Depression (although this can also be a symptom)
- Being overweight and lack of exercise
- Heart health – high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes
Is Alzheimer's hereditary?
Yes. Alzheimer's can be caused by an individual gene that can be passed down through generations. However, the vast majority of cases are not heredity.
What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's?
When you look at Alzheimer’s vs dementia, it can be difficult to see how they are different. But, dementia is the general term for a decline in mental ability, whereas Alzheimer’s is a specific disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia.
Sadly, there isn’t a cure for Alzheimer's disease, but medicines can help to relieve some of the symptoms, while psychological treatments often play a part in supporting the person’s memory, problem-solving skills and language ability.
There isn’t a single test that can determine whether a person has Alzheimer’s, so the process of reaching a diagnosis can be a long journey.
It is a life-limiting illness, so planning and preparing for the future is essential. Even in the early stages of the disease, you can begin to look for ways to help the person live as independently as possible. For example, by making changes to their home so it’s easier to move around. Memory aids can help them remember where things are and recall daily tasks - you could clearly label cupboards and drawers that contain everyday essentials.
How to help someone with Alzheimer’s
One of the most useful things you can do to support a friend or family member is to learn more about the condition. Online resources offered by organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia UK can help you to understand the effects and provide lots of Alzheimer’s support. In addition:
Be patient – learning how to live with Alzheimer’s is an ongoing process and every person will adjust differently. Remember, the person may be experiencing a world that is increasingly unfamiliar to them, so try to see things from their perspective by being patient and understanding.
Be there - keep in contact. Regularly phoning and visiting will show them you care. Someone with Alzheimer’s can experience low self-esteem and a loss of confidence, so make sure they feel valued and connected to others.
Be considerate - always include the person with Alzheimer’s in the conversation, even if their communication skills or cognitive abilities have declined. You could also suggest creating a memory box, by collecting items and images from their past to help stimulate long-term memories.
Be useful - support people caring for someone with Alzheimer’s by offering to prepare a meal, do their shopping, clean the kitchen or do the washing.
If you are worried about a friend or family member, it's important to talk to a medical professional. Encourage them to make an appointment and offer to go with them and describe any changes in their behaviour or symptoms that you’ve noticed.
We hope that this guide has helped to answer your questions about Alzheimer’s including what it is, what causes it, symptoms, stages and how to help someone suffering from the disease.
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