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Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias

Dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. It is not one specific disease, and is not a normal part of ageing.

Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks because brain cells gradually die during the disease process.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. If someone has Alzheimer’s, they may have problems with memory, thinking skills, emotions, behaviour and mood. As the disease progresses, brain function is affected enough to interfere with the person’s normal social or working life.

Alzheimer’s disease destroys brain cells, leading to dramatic brain volume losses and cognitive impairment

Alzheimer’s occurs when abnormal protein builds up inside and outside the brain. The cells in the brain eventually die, damaging the connections between the brain’s cells. The loss of these connections lead to the loss of brain function as symptoms of the disease develop. As Alzheimer’s disease moves through each area of the brain, certain functions or abilities are lost.

Dementia is the single greatest cause of disability in Australians over 65. An estimated 425,000 Australians currently live with dementia. One in four people over the age of 85 have dementia. Without a significant medical breakthrough, this is expected to soar to over one million by 2050.

Some of the more common causes of dementia include:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Fronto-temporal dementia
  • Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease
  • Hippocampal sclerosis

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease will gradually worsen over time and will differ from one person to another.

Symptoms may include:

Progressive and frequent memory loss

Everyone has occasional memory lapses- it’s normal to lose track of your keys or forget the name of an acquaintance. The memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s persists and worsens, affecting your ability to work and function.

People with dementia may:

  • Repeat statements and questions over and over, not realising they’ve asked the question before
  • forget conversations, appointments or events and not remember them later
  • Routinely misplace possessions, often putting them in illogical locations
  • Get lost in familiar places
  • Eventually forget the names of family members and everyday objects
  • Have trouble finding the right words to identify objects, express thoughts or take part in conversations.

Difficulty with thinking and reasoning

Dementia causes difficulty concentrating and thinking, especially about abstract concepts like numbers. Multitasking can also be difficult, and it may be challenging to manage finances, balance check books and pay bills on time. These difficulties may progress to an inability to recognise and deal with numbers.

Difficulty making judgements and decisions

Responding effectively to everyday problems, such as food burning on the stove or an unexpected driving situation, can become increasingly challenging.

Difficulty planning and performing familiar tasks

Once routine activities that require sequential steps, such as planning and cooking a meal or playing a favourite game, become a struggle as the disease progresses. Eventually, people with advanced dementia may forget how to perform basic tasks such as dressing and bathing.

Changes in personality and behaviour

Brain changes that occur during the dementia process can affect the way a person acts and feels.

People with Alzheimer’s or other dementias may experience the following mood related changes:

  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Mood swings
  • Distrust in others
  • Irritability and aggressiveness
  • Changes in sleeping habits.

Dementia is a gradually developing disease, so later symptoms may take anywhere from months to years to develop. People with dementia may also experience a loss of initiative, reduced desire to exercise, a loss of orientation, loss of speech and stiff muscles. During the later stages, full time nursing and assistance often becomes necessary.

The early signs of dementia are subtle and can vary greatly from person to person.

Usually, people first seem to notice difficulties with memory, particularly remembering recent events. The best place to start the diagnostic process is with a doctor who, after considering the symptoms and ordering screening tests, may offer a preliminary diagnosis or refer the person to a medical specialist such as a neurologist, geriatrician or psychiatrist.

Causes and treatment

Currently, there is no known cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists believe that for most people, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time.

Some dementias can be caused by lifestyle factors, such as excessive chronic alcohol intake, known as Korsakoff's syndrome.

Less than five per cent of the time, Alzheimer’s is caused by specific genetic changes that virtually guarantee a person will develop the disease.

It's important to remember that dementia is not a normal part of ageing.

Although there is currently no cure for dementia, the search continues. A number of medications are available, however, to help slow or stabilise how quickly the disease progresses. Cholinergic treatments can offer some relief in the early stages of the disease, while a drug called memantine is currently approved for use in people with more severe symptoms.

Other medications may also be used to treat depression, anxiety, agitation and aggression or sleep disturbances that can be associated with the disease. Stress management, staying active and social connection are also important for managing Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

  • Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in Australia

  • In 2018, approximately 425,420 Australians are living with dementia

  • Some 250 Australians are diagnosed with dementia each day.

How the Florey is making a difference

Florey scientists are chipping away at dementia, including Alzheimer's disease from every angle. Our scientists work with animal models of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias to uncover basic aspects of the disease process. Our scientists are also in the clinic trialling drugs that may help prevent memory decline, language and mood disturbances, and developing new tests to diagnose Alzheimer's years before symptoms begin.

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