Alzheimer's disease awareness

Dr Thapelo Motshudi
20 September 2023
7 min read

World Alzheimer's Day is an annual observance held on September 21st, dedicated to raising awareness about Alzheimer's disease and its impact on individuals, families, and communities worldwide. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurodegenerative condition that primarily affects memory, thinking, and behaviour, leading to cognitive decline and, eventually, the loss of independence.

What is Alzheimer Disease?

Alzheimer disease is a currently incurable and progressive disease that leads to disturbances in one’s memory, mental functions, and behavior. The condition limits one’s ability to function independently. It is one of a group of conditions called Dementias, and it is the most common one of these. The specific cause is unknown because some of the changes that are seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s also occur in people who do not have the disease. It is suspected that a combination of environmental and genetic factors triggers a sequence of events that culminate in clinical Alzheimer’s.

Who does it affect?

It is not possible to predict with absolute certainty who will get Alzheimer’s, but some risk factors are known to increase the chance that one might get it. The one constant feature is age, and men and women appear to be equally affected. Alzheimer disease normally starts to manifest from the age of 65, with the proportion of patients increasing significantly above the age of 80. Some of the other risk factors are family history, obesity, insulin resistance, traumatic brain injury, and hypertension.

How does it present itself?

It can be quite subtle in the beginning, with both the patient and the family not noticing that something is seriously wrong, especially because it progresses very slowly. It usually starts with memory loss, which is sometimes explained away as part of “normal ageing”. An early sign of the disease is usually difficulty remembering recent events or conversations. Then this can progress to other language problems, for example difficulty in naming normal everyday objects like chairs and trees, or a struggle to remember the names of close family members.

Some patients develop what are called motor symptoms, which leads to them having difficulty performing daily tasks with their hands. All of them almost always eventually develop psychiatric symptoms like depression, anxiety, and hallucinations. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms to the same degree, or in the same sequence.

How is it diagnosed?

Clinical examination is the primary mode of diagnosis. MRI scans and laboratory tests are also performed as part of the diagnostic workup, and these also help to exclude other causes of dementia and to monitor progression of disease. There are several criteria that need to be met for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s to be made. If your primary doctor has a clinical suspicion that you have Alzheimer disease, they will refer you to the appropriate specialists for investigations and management.

How is it treated?

It is important to know that currently AD has no cure, although there are some experimental drugs available. Therefore, almost all forms of treatment are directed to treating the symptoms and delaying the progression of disease.

This means that 2 patients with AD might not be on the same treatment because they might have different symptoms. What is always essential to realize is that at some point the patient might pose a danger to themself and those around them, thus requiring 24-hour supervision, which might not always be available at home.

There is also no known reliable way of preventing Alzheimer’s.  One can always benefit from being in general good health, performing regular exercise, following a good diet, ensuring there is good control of diabetes and hypertension, and the maintenance of an appropriate weight. 

There are several support groups available to assist those suffering from Alzheimer’s or their caregivers. Your local healthcare professional can help you locate them.

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