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What is Alzheimer’s disease?


Defining Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Dementia is the general term used to describe a range of symptoms associated with the loss of memory, thinking and behavioural skills which significantly reduces a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. These result from damage to brain cells.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is responsible for about 70% of all dementia cases. The vast majority of cases are in people over the age of 65 and are a result of sporadic Alzheimer’s disease. However, a less common form, familial Alzheimer’s disease, caused by genetic mutation, can affect people under the age of 65.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the build-up of abnormal deposits of protein in the brain. There are two types of deposits, plaques and tangles. The plaques are a protein fragment called beta-amyloid and they build up in the spaces between nerve cells. The tangles are fibres of a protein called tau and they build up inside brain cells. These build-ups usually begin in the outer brain, where short-term memory is controlled. It then spreads and starts to affect long-term memory and other functions.

Research into Alzheimer’s disease has really only taken off within the last couple of decades. However, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s means there are now a great deal of resources being put into understanding the disease. While there is a general understanding of what is happening within the brain of Alzheimer’s sufferers, researchers are still trying to determine exactly how and why the build-ups of beta-amyloid and tau occur

Dr Alois Alzheimer

Alzheimer’s disease is named after a German psychiatrist, Dr Alois Alzheimer. He had a patient, Auguste Deter, who suffered memory loss and unpredictable behavior. After Auguste’s death in 1906, Dr Alzheimer examined her brain detected deposits of the plaques and tangles now associated with the disease.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

The key symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are:

  • Memory loss, particularly with recently provided information
  • Difficulty completing tasks that have been a part of daily life e.g. finding one’s way to a familiar location
  • Difficulty following a plan or a sequence of instructions; also calculating numbers
  • Confusing time, ranging from time of day to time of year
  • Confusing place, not knowing where or why that are at a particular location
  • Change in visual perception, including judging distance
  • Loss of judgement, particularly when dealing with others – so are susceptible to scam artists
  • Confusion with language, such as not being able to complete sentences in cohesive way, or not being able to find the right words to express themselves
  • Withdrawing from activities that have been a major part of their life and a major source of enjoyment
  • Misplacing objects or putting them in the wrong place
  • Sudden, unexpected and seemingly out of place changes in personality and behaviour.

If you are concerned about a family member or friend who appears to be exhibiting some of these characteristics, you should seek advice from a GP.

How is Alzheimer’s disease diagnosed?

There is no single test for Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, someone who exhibits symptoms of the disease are taken through a range of tests that can indicate the presence of other conditions that share similar symptoms. The tests that are conducted include:

  • Analysis of medical record
  • Physical examination
  • Neurological tests
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Testing of cerebral spinal fluid
  • Testing of intellectual function
  • Psychiatric testing
  • Medical imaging.

Can Alzheimer’s disease be treated?

A great deal of research is being conducted into Alzheimer’s disease. At present, there is no effective treatment that cures or reverses Alzheimer’s disease. There are, however, some drugs that show signs of being able to slow some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, though the symptoms will inevitably get worse.

Can Alzheimer’s disease be prevented?

Aging is inevitable and so are changes to one’s brain. Research suggests there are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. These include:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Social interaction
  • Healthy diet
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Consistent, quality sleep
  • Stress minimisation.

Caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease

The level of care given to someone with Alzheimer’s disease depends a great deal on the type and degree of their dementia. Those in the early stages are most likely able to live alone with minimal assistance; others can live alone with more active assistance; others may require constant assistance either in their own home or in a care facility.

Here are some basic tips that may help but more information can be found in Caring for someone with dementia, Aged care homes with dementia care, and Person-centred dementia care.

  • If caring for someone in their own home, make sure they are in a safe, comfortable and stimulating environment.
  • Ensure the person you are caring for has a range of activities they can do every day, both physical and intellectual.
  • If you are searching for residential care, do not rush into the first available option. Check various facilities, particularly focusing on those who provide specialist dementia care.
  • Take care of yourself. Do not take on more responsibility than you can manage, or that is unhealthy for you. You are not caring adequately for the other person if you are not adequately caring for yourself.

An individual diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease has an impact on a network of people: friends, families and colleagues. Support and further information is available from the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 or at

For some expert assistance on dementia care options, contact a CareAbout care advisor 1300 721 855.


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