Alzheimer's Disease- what we used to think, what we know and what we need to find out.
September marks the start of a new (academic) year, beginning of autumn and the end to those long summer nights. It’s also the International Alzheimer’s Disease month.
The aim of this campaign is to raise awareness and challenge the stigma that surrounds Alzheimer’s disease.
In this blog post I’ll being debunking some of the common myths of Alzheimer’s disease, highlighting some misconceptions about what is means to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and give an overview of the amazing research which is taking place as we speak to try to understand, manage and maybe even cure Alzheimer’s disease.
1) Alzheimer’s disease ONLY happens to “old people”
The prevalence of this disease is highest in those over the age of 65 and the risk of developing the disease also increases with age. However, Alzheimer’s disease can present itself in a person’s 50s, 40s, or even earlier- this is called early-onset Alzheimer’s.
2) Memory loss, unintentional weight loss and reduced balance are all NORMAL PARTS of AGEING.
These are some of the characteristic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. But these are not inevitable symptoms of ageing and Alzheimer’s disease is not a symptom of ageing.
Other symptoms include: low, muddled or repetitive speech, poor organisation skills and problems with decision making.
As we age, it is normal to have occasional memory loss such as forgetting the name of the person you’ve just met- I’m in my late 20’s and this a regular struggle for me!! Alzheimer’s disease is associated with long term memories being lost, for example the name of a long-life friend.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease involving physical changes to the brain such as the development of amyloid plaques* and neurofibrillary tangles** and nerve cells losing contact with each other or dying. This damage to the brain can start to occur up to 10 years before a person starts to display Alzheimer’s symptoms.
3) Alzheimer’s is caused by aluminium pots and cans
In the 1960s-1970s people blamed cooking in aluminium pots and drinking from aluminium cans as the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. This was sparked by a 1965 study which found that injecting rabbits with extremely high doses of aluminium caused the development of neurofibrillary tangles in the nerve cells of their brains. From this, is was speculated that aluminium products caused Alzheimer’s. The study had many limitations and the conclusion was over reaching. Research has yet to identify a causal link between aluminium and the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
4) Your relatives have it, so you WILL develop it too
It’s not inevitable but the chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease is higher if a parent develops early-onset (younger that 65 years old) Alzheimer’s disease. If your parent or sibling develops Alzheimer’s later in life you are 3x more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than someone who does not have Alzheimer’s disease in the family.
5) People with Alzheimer’s disease have NO IDEA what is going on around them
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can be deceiving. Even though people have difficulty or cannot communicate well, that does not mean that they are not aware of what is happening around them. Emotions and feelings are still very much present even though memory and physical abilities are changing. Even in the late stages of the disease, people respond to touch and find comfort in soothing voices and music.
“….people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”- Maya Angelou
*Small protein fragments that build up in between the brain’s nerve cells. These can block nerve cells from communicating with each other
**damaged proteins within nerve cells which have the function of stabilising the structure of cell.
“You have to stop driving immediately
You have to give up work
From the time of diagnosis, you have to be treated differently by friends and family
You will immediately lose the ability to make decisions (loss of capacity)
Someone else will have to manage your finances
You will have memory problems”- Dementia UK.org
Just as each person is unique, each Alzheimer’s diagnosis is unique to that person. If diagnosed early, many people are able to continue working, driving and living full and productive lives. Being diagnosis does not automatically mean that the person cannot make decisions and must be moved to a care home. It means that the person is able to access advice and support from specialist groups enabling them to live independently for as long as possible.
This is just a brief outline of some of the research which is taking place in universities and National Health Trusts across the UK. The purpose of all this research is to improve our understanding of how Alzheimer’s disease develops, how best to manage people with Alzheimer’s disease and how it can be cured.
Improving our understanding of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease
- Cardiff University, the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter are investigating links between the immune system and the development of Alzheimer’s disease
- University of Manchester are looking into a potential link between zinc deficiency and Alzheimer’s disease
- And University College London are researching whether ageing brain cells could increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Improving care and management of Alzheimer’s disease.
- The University of Exeter are involved in developing ways to improve night-time care for those with Alzheimer’s disease living in care homes. They are also working on ways to reduce the need of prescribing hypnotic drugs in people with Alzheimer’s disease in care homes.
- Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust are working to develop a specialist mouth care programme for patients who have dementia and swallowing difficulties in hospitals.
- The University of Dundee are researching if leptin, the anti-obesity hormone, can protect brain cells
- Imperial College London are investigating whether the type 2 diabetes medication, liraglutide, could treat Alzheimer’s disease
- Queen's University Belfast are investigating whether drugs for rheumatoid arthritis can reduce Alzheimer’s disease progression.
- The University of St Andrews are aiming to develop new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Earlier studies have shown that the energy production machinery of cells, called mitochondria, cannot function properly in people with Alzheimer’s disease. So, their research is focussing on developing drugs which help mitochondria to work properly.
Alzheimer Society of Canada
Alzheimer’s Association (US)
Alzheimer’s Society (UK)
Additional Sources: National Health Service (NHS) Direct, U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. National Institute on Ageing, World Health Organisation (WHO)