How to find the facts about Alzheimer's

Whether you're newly diagnosed, or living with someone who has Alzheimer's, you're probably keen to learn everything you can about the disease. These are the essential facts you need to know.

In a nutshell

Alzheimer's is a neurological disease which causes brain cells to die. As the chemistry of the brain changes, mild memory loss and confusion often begins to occur which, in time, gets worse.

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Three facts worth knowing

1. Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia. Around 60 per cent of the 850,000 people in the UK with dementia have Alzheimer's. The condition is named after Alois Alzheimer, the German pathologist who first discovered it.

2. Alzheimer's is usually considered a disease of old age since the vast majority of people who get it are over 65. In fact, the likelihood of developing it doubles every five years after you reach 65. But it is not just part of normal ageing.

3. Alzheimer's can also affect younger adults (aged 30-60) but this is rare. Only around 5 per cent of people with Alzheimer's are thought to have the 'early-onset' form of the disease.

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What actually happens

Every person's experience is different, but at first the symptoms may be so mild you hardly notice them or might put them down to something else, such as tiredness, age or depression. Gradually, the person with Alzheimer's will find it difficult to remember recently learnt information such as the name of a new grandchild, or a doctor's appointment. As the disease moves to different parts of the brain, they may become disorientated, getting lost on their way to a local shop, or becoming uncharacteristically irritable or angry. The confusion slowly becomes more noticeable until eventually it impacts on daily life.

Could this be you (or someone you know)?

Although no-one knows for sure what actually causes Alzheimer's you have more chance of developing it if;

-  Several members of your family have had it.

-  You have a history of heart disease or depression.

-  You've had a head injury or whiplash.

-  You have Down's Syndrome.

If you recognise yourself, or a loved one, in any of the symptoms or information here it's definitely worth talking to your GP or confiding in someone you trust. For while it's true that there is no cure - yet - for Alzheimer's, there are treatments that can really help, so the earlier it's diagnosed the better for everyone.

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Here's the science

Alzheimer's damages nerve cells in the brain (called neurons). The more damaged they become, the more difficult it can be to think clearly, remember, or learn new things.

What causes the damage?

The prime suspects are two proteins called amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Most people develop these plaques and tangles in their brain as they age, but those living with Alzheimer's seem to develop far more of them.

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As the plaques and tangles spread to different areas of the brain, more severe symptoms occur. By the time the damage is widespread the brain is so badly affected it can shrink quite noticeably.

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Good to know

-  Alzheimer's progresses slowly, usually over many years. In fact, by the time even the mildest symptoms are present, scientists believe Alzheimer's has probably been making tiny changes in the brain's nerve cells for around ten years.

-  Research is moving fast. Almost 90 per cent of what we know about Alzheimer's has been discovered in the last 15 years.

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