Alzheimer's: How To Spot The Symptoms And How To Manage It

Alzheimer's may be the most common form of dementia, with around 500,000 people suffering from the disease, but it still a condition that a lot of people find difficult to talk about.

Earlier this year, the Alzheimer's Society revealed that nearly 50% of people are too scared to tell their loved ones that they are worried they may have dementia.

The Money Carer Foundation added it "suggests that this could leave around half a million people struggling with their symptoms in silence rather than seeking support from family and friends."

So, what is Alzheimer's? It's a dementia, which is a collection of symptoms connected to the decline in the way your brain functions, affecting memory and the way you behave. Aside from Alzheimer's, you may have also heard of vascular dementia or DLB (dementia with Lewy's bodies).

HuffPost UK Lifestyle asked Anchor’s award winning dementia consultant Victoria Metcalfe to explain how it works.

What is it and what causes it?

"Alzheimer’s causes the chemistry and structure of the brain to change," she says, "leading to the death of brain cells. Vascular dementia is caused by problems in the supply of blood to the brain (often following a stroke), and DLB is caused by structures developing inside nerve cells in the brain, leading to the degeneration of brain tissue. These other forms of dementia are also characterised by different symptoms.

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Although scientists aren't quite sure what causes it - it may be a combination of age, genetics and lifestyle choices - people with Alzheimer's also have a shortage of some important chemicals in their brain. Alzheimer's Society says: "These chemicals are involved with the transmission of messages within the brain. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, which means that gradually, over time, more parts of the brain are damaged."

What are the symptoms?

“In Alzheimer’s, short-term memory problems are usually the first noticeable sign," says Victoria. "People in the early stages of Alzheimer's may also experience lapses of memory loss and have problems finding the right words. It is important for loved ones to be aware that someone with Alzheimer’s may also:

  • Become confused and frequently forget names, places, appointments and recent events
  • Experience mood swings, feel sad or angry or scared and frustrated by their increasing memory loss
  • Become more withdrawn, due either to a loss of confidence or communication problems
  • Have difficulty carrying out everyday activities - they may get muddled checking their change at the shops or become unsure how to work familiar items such as the television.

"People with Alzheimer's will need more support from those who care for them and eventually they will need help with all their daily activities."

Molecular ribbon representation of the beta-amyloid peptide found in the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients.

What age group does it affect?

"Dementia affects one in 14 people over the age of 65," says the Alzheimer's Society, "and one in six over the age of 80. However, dementia is not restricted to older people: in the UK, there are over 17,000 people under the age of 65 with dementia, although this figure is likely to be an underestimate."

What do I do if I am worried I have dementia?

Firstly, if your main concern is memory loss, be aware that it may be due to another underlying condition rather than dementia. Lucy Harmer, head of services at Age UK says: "There are lots of causes for memory loss form stress to depression, vitamin deficiencies to urinary tract infections. People think: "Oh my god, my memory loss has gotten worse," it must be dementia, but it may not be.

If you are in doubt, see your GP who may be able to refer you to a specialist for further tests. If you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, says the NHS, "a plan will be drawn up by healthcare professionals, such as your GP or psychiatrist social care services, which is normally your local council working in conjunction with the NHS."

Is there anything I can do to prevent it?

Unlike cardiovascular diseases, there is no direct cause of Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's Research UK is looking into risk factors beyond a disease that strikes in old age. They say: "Risk factors for cardiovascular disease (like heart disease and stroke) are also risk factors for all dementia. So it’s a good idea to keep healthy by exercising regularly, not smoking, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, controlling high blood pressure, reducing your cholesterol level and only drinking alcohol within the recommended limits and eating a balanced diet."