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Alzheimer’s Disease

This is a degenerative disease leading to the loss of important brain cells and it is the most common form of dementia. Symptoms of the condition include confusion, memory loss, impairment of reasoning, restlessness and exaggerated emotional reactions.

The incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease is increasing as the population ages. Research has shown that as many as 20% of people over eighty years of age may have the disease. It can be difficult to diagnose and the course of the disease is variable, usually with a gradual onset. Early symptoms include problems in remembering recent events and difficulty performing familiar tasks or learning new ones. There can be changes in personality and behaviour, impaired judgement and difficulty in finding words, finishing thoughts and confusion about the time and the date. As the disease progresses it can deprive the person of the ability to look after themselves and the patient can suffer greatly because of confusion and the struggle to cope with everyday life.

It is often asked what the difference is between dementia and Alzheimer’s. Dementia is a term used to describe a group of symptoms and is not a disease in itself. There are many known forms of dementia and each has its own cause but Alzheimer’s is the most common form. Others include vascular dementia, dementia associated with progressed Parkinson’s Disease, dementia with Lewey bodies, Frontal Temporal Lobar Degeneration, Huntington’s Disease, Alcohol-related dementia and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease.

Risk factors for the disease include age, genetic factors, gender (females are more likely to suffer from the disease), race (it is more prevalent in Caucasians) and cardio-vascular factors such as heart disease, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, stroke and lower education.

A patient with Alzheimer’s disease should be under medical attention and carefully monitored. Symptoms such as depression and agitation can be alleviated by prescription drugs. Early diagnosis is important as a means of ruling out treatable causes of dementia and to check for complicating conditions. Image-making techniques such as MRI can be used to aid the diagnosis. Recommendations for the prevention and management of early stage Alzheimer’s include weight loss and having a healthy diet, reduction of elevated cholesterol levels and blood pressure and complex leisure activities with physical, mental and social interactivity components.

Some action can be taken to help the patient feel more comfortable and reduce behavioural disturbances. These include:
  • Allowing the patient to have personal belongings and familiar objects nearby
  • Encouraging orientation with a clock and a calendar
  • Keeping the environment pleasant and calm
  • Ensuring and treatable deficits are corrected (hearing aids, glasses and dentures etc.)
  • Using television, radio or music for relaxation but not as a substitute for activity
  • Maintaining social activity and mobility levels as much as possible
  • Ensuring basic needs are met (food, water, warmth and cleanliness etc.)
It is thought that fruit and vegetable juices may play an important part in delaying the onset of the disease particularly amongst those who are at high risk. Some evidence also suggests that dietary intake of homocysteine-related vitamins (B12 and folate), anti-oxidants (like vitamins C and E), unsaturated fatty acids and also moderate alcohol intake (especially wine) may reduce the risk of the disease. The diet should include protein-rich foods such as lean meats, fish, eggs, chicken, nuts, seeds, peas and beans. Sugar and refined carbohydrate should be minimal. Olive oil should be used for cooking and bodyweight should be maintained at a reasonable level.

Further information and support are available from The Alzheimer Society of Ireland:
Alzheimer House
43 Northumberland Avenue
Dun Laoghaire
Co. Dublin
Phone: 1800-341341

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Kevin McCormack B.Sc. Pharm. MPSI