Wednesday 21 September is World Alzheimer’s Day. The day is observed to reignite awareness of the debilitating disease, its sufferers, the families of those affected, and hopes for cures or treatment. It’s also put in place to debunk myths and strive to resolve stigma. Purple is the official color of the Alzheimer’s movement.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Named after Alois Alzheimer, it was first described in 1906 after he encountered a patient that had started to exhibit irrational behaviour and memory loss. Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that usually starts slowly and progressively worsens. It is the cause of 60–70% of cases of dementia. The most common early symptom is difficulty in remembering recent events.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s
Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a specific disease. Dementia is not.
Other causes of dementia include:
- Vascular dementia
- Parkinson’s disease
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Severe head injury dementia
Other symptoms of Alzheimer’s
As the disease progresses, other symptoms will appear and can include:
- Problems with language
- Disorientation (including easily getting lost)
- Mood swings
- Loss of motivation
- Behavioral issues
As the disease worsens, the sufferer often withdraws from family and society. Bodily functions are gradually lost, which ultimately leads to death. The life expectancy following diagnosis is three to nine years. However, the speed of progression varies from person to person.
How Alzheimer’s can be treated/managed
Alzheimer’s is a very complex disease, and there is little chance of one single drug treating the whole spectrum of the disease or indeed helping everyone who tries it. However, advances are being made, and several drugs are in late-stage clinical trials.
The currently available medications focus on alleviating symptoms, although one drug is being fast-tracked for approval as it aims to stop plaque forming in the brain. It’s still undetermined whether the drug will help with symptoms already present.
Unfortunately, one must keep in mind that no cure currently exists.
Galantamine, rivastigmine, and donepezil are cholinesterase inhibitors prescribed for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms. These drugs may help reduce or control some cognitive and behavioral symptoms.
A medication known as memantine, an N-methyl D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist, is prescribed to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. This drug’s main effect is to decrease symptoms, enabling some people to maintain certain daily functions a little longer than they would without the medication. For example, memantine may help a person in the later stages of the disease maintain his or her ability to use the bathroom independently for several more months, a benefit for both the person with Alzheimer’s and caregivers.
Common behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s
These include sleeplessness, wandering, agitation, anxiety, aggression, restlessness, and depression. Scientists are learning why these symptoms occur and are studying new treatments — drug and nondrug — to manage them. Research has shown that treating behavioral symptoms can make people with Alzheimer’s more comfortable and makes things easier for caregivers.
Side effects of Alzheimer’s disease medications
Patients are usually started on a relatively low dose of a medication and then monitored to see how well they cope with it. The strength is then later increased.
Side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, allergic reactions, and loss of appetite. You must be aware of the usual symptoms so you can report anything unusual to the health care provider immediately.