What is Alzheimer's disease?
Dementia is a general term used to describe ongoing problems affecting memory
and other mental function. These problems are associated with processes that destroy brain
cells. Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia that causes the brain to lose its ability
to function normally. Not simply memory loss, Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of
aging. It affects those parts of the brain responsible for thought, memory, and language,
and, as symptoms worsen, the affected person gradually becomes unable to perform normal,
Who develops Alzheimer's disease?
Although Alzheimer's disease tends to occur most often in people over the age of 65, it
can affect people as young as 40. Risk increases with age.
What causes Alzheimer's disease?
As explained above, Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia and is associated with
processes that destroy brain cells. The exact cause of Alzheimer's isn't known, but it
is believed that acetylcholine, a brain chemical that transmits signals between nerves,
plays a role in the development of the disease. People with Alzheimer's disease have less
of this important chemical in their brains than do people in the general population.
In addition, abnormal clumps known as amyloid plaques and fibers are present
in the brains of affected people.
What are the warning signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?
The Alzheimer's Society of Canada identifies the following as 10 warning signs of
- Memory loss that affects day-to-day function
- Everyone forgets things from time to time; however, a person with Alzheimer's
disease tends to forget things often, particularly things that have occurred in the
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks
- People affected by Alzheimer's disease have difficulty performing familiar tasks
such as meal preparation.
- Problems with language
- It's normal to forget a word or two when speaking, but the speech of an Alzheimer's
patient may often be difficult to understand.
- Disorientation about time or place
- A person with Alzheimer's may get lost on her street or may not be able to find
her way home.
- Poor or decreased judgment
- For instance, those affected by Alzheimer's disease may wear heavy clothing on a
- Problems with abstract thinking
- Those with Alzheimer's may forget the meaning of numbers or what it means to
celebrate a birthday.
- Misplacing things
- An Alzheimer's patient may put things where they do not belong: for instance, he
may put a wristwatch in the freezer.
- Changes in mood and behaviour
- Those affected by Alzheimer's may swing from a happy mood to tears for no
- Changes in personality
- A person with Alzheimer's can become withdrawn, confused, suspicious. He or she
may act out of character.
- Loss of initiative
- People with Alzheimer's may need cues or prompts to become involved in activity.
What are the management options for Alzheimer's disease?
A cure has not yet been found for Alzheimer's, but management options do exist.
The goal of management is to allow the patient to live as independently as possible.
Management includes the involvement of family and/or professional caregivers,
doctors, and professional counsellors and also includes medication and support for the
Alzheimer's sufferer and his/her family.
The role of medications in the treatment of Alzheimer's
Because there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, medications are used
to slow the progression of symptoms.
Acetylcholine, a brain chemical that transmits signals between nerves, is less
prevalent in Alzheimer's sufferers than in the general population. For this reason,
medications that prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine have been found to be
helpful in slowing the progression of the disease. Currently, donepezil, rivastigmine,
galantamine, and memantine are intended for use by people with mild to moderate
For more information about Alzheimer's disease, you may wish to pick up a copy of
The Alzheimer's Action Plan by P. Murali Doraiswamy,
MD, and Lisa P. Gwyther, MSW.