Alzheimer’s disease

Information for patients and carers

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease of the brain.  It affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities because of problems in cognitive functioning. When people have a progressive disease of the brain which causes problems in memory, thinking skills and their ability to carry out day to day activities, this is called a dementia. Some people use the terms ‘Alzheimer’s’ and ‘dementia’ interchangeably, but Alzheimer’s is only one of many different causes of dementia.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms are problems in memory.  People with Alzheimer’s disease usually become forgetful and may have difficulty learning new information and remembering events from the past.  However, people often tell us that their memory for events in the distant past, like their childhood, is better than their memory for day to day things.

There may also be problems in language.  People often have difficulty finding the right words and sometimes struggle to understand complicated speech or instructions. 

Visual abilities can also be affected.  Although Alzheimer’s disease does not directly affect eyesight, people can have difficulty locating objects and may become easily lost in unfamiliar surroundings.

People with Alzheimer’s disease can become clumsier or have difficulty dressing, cooking and using household gadgets. 

Basic personality remains relatively unchanged, although people with Alzheimer’s disease may be less confident, less socially outgoing and more anxious because of their difficulties.  Some people may be more irritable.

Despite the changes in memory and thinking skills, people with Alzheimer’s disease typically remain physically well until the advanced stages of the disease.

Are the symptoms the same for all sufferers?

No, there are individual differences.  For example, one person may have particularly severe problems in memory and another person may have more difficulties in verbal expression. Sometimes people have symptoms in only one area (e.g. memory, language or vision) for several years before developing any other symptoms. Recognising these differences is very important in clinical diagnosis and in research into the illness. 

Will the symptoms become worse?

Yes, the disease is progressive, so symptoms do become worse over time.  However, there is wide variation in the speed of progression.  Some people show little decline over the course of a year whereas others change more quickly.  Usually, monitoring a person’s progress over a year or so will give a good guide as to the likely future rate of progression.

At what age are people affected?

Alzheimer’s disease becomes more common as we get older.  However, it is it is not only a disease of the elderly. Many people begin to show symptoms in their 50s and 60s, or even earlier.  The terms ‘early-onset’ and ‘late-onset’ are sometimes used to distinguish Alzheimer’s disease beginning before or after the age of 65.

How many people are affected?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. There are over 500,000 people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the UK. Of these, 4.4% (over 22,000) are under the age of 65.

What causes the disease?

The disorder is a degenerative condition of the brain. This means that cells in certain parts of the brain gradually stop functioning correctly and can die. This is why symptoms develop. The cause of this degeneration is not fully understood yet and is the key question for current research. We do know that there are two particular proteins, Beta-Amyloid and Tau protein, which build up in the brain and seem to be linked to the problems in cell function.

We also know that this condition is not caused by external, environmental or lifestyle factors such as diet, occupational exposure or head injury. It can affect people from all walks of life and is not simply the result of ‘over-use’ or ‘under-use’ of the brain.

Is Alzheimer’s disease inherited?

Not typically.  Most people with Alzheimer’s Disease have no family history of the illness.  However, occasionally it can run in families. Gene mutations have been discovered that account for some familial cases.  If you have particular questions or concerns please let us know.  Our colleagues in the Genetics department are able to provide individual advice.

Can the disease be treated?

Yes, there are drugs available which are designed to slow progression. Unfortunately there is not a cure for the disease.  Most of the drugs work by preventing loss of a brain chemical called acetylcholine, which is important for memory and thinking.  This chemical is known to be reduced in Alzheimer’s disease.  Any treatment options will be discussed with you by your doctor in the clinic. A doctor in your local area, will prescribe the appropriate drugs so that its effects can be closely monitored.

Is there any research into Alzheimer’s disease?

Yes, the interest in this area of research increases each year. The aim is to understand the mechanisms that underlie this disorder, so that better treatments can be developed. Our department is an active contributor to research in Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative disorders. If you would like to find out more about the research carried out in our unit, please contact us or ask when you attend the clinic.