We give thought to those afflicted with Alzheimer’s on World Alzheimer’s Day on the 21st of September. As we age there is one disease that we fear more than any other – and that is the gradual unravelling of mental capacity that whittles away at memory, identity, the most basic sense of self. There are variations of dementia but Alzheimer’s is the most common and also the most feared because of the loss of independence, control of one’s life, and ability to make decisions – along with the tragic disconnection with loved ones.
Alzheimer’s can strike anyone in any walk of life. It doesn’t discriminate against race, gender or culture – or even level of professionalism; from scientists to labourers or doctors to cleaners, all can be affected in exactly the same way. While it is not a normal part of aging, it mostly manifests after the age of eighty, but can also strike people as young as the early forties.
The story of Alzheimer’s
In 1901 Alois Alzheimer, a Bavarian-born psychiatrist and neuropathologist, had the opportunity to analyse the brain of a 51-year-old woman who before her death had displayed symptoms he had never seen before. He found that cells had died on an immense scale throughout the brain. In the neurons that remained lay evidence of thick fibrils and plaques of unknown composition. Today, we know these complications as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles or tau. In 1911 Alzheimer published his findings on the histopathology of this patient, together with another case he had been working with. This paper marked the beginning of further investigations and eventually over time many comprehensive publications by medical practitioners began to build into a library of information on one of the most important diseases of our time.
The warning signs
- Memory lapses can happen to anyone at literally any age – but as we age it is more accentuated. But if memory loss worsens noticeably and dramatically over time, then that might present a factor for concern.
- Difficulty naming objects, or finding the right word to use in a sentence. This again may not be a sign of Alzheimer’s directly but one would need to be aware of how common these lapses become.
- Dexterity begins to suffer and people with Alzheimer's may find it increasingly difficult to dress themselves.
- When elderly people begin to pay less attention to cleanliness, forgetting to bath, flush the toilet or wash their hands.
- Mood swings for no reason – going from calm to frightened or aggressive in a matter of minutes.
- Behaving strangely in public like wearing peculiar combinations of clothes or taking off clothing.
- Getting lost in familiar places.
- Slowly losing recognition of close family members.
- A clear memory of childhood but forgetting what happened the day before.
- Becoming suspicious of other people and very often accusing them of stealing.
Ways to reduce the stresses of caring
Today we face the situation in a practical and informative way, explaining to people what is happening to them and guiding their family to better care for them.
- Setting up support groups to openly discuss issues and problems, and allow people to share experiences and feelings.
- Providing professional counselling for both patients and family to help everyone cope with the stress the condition does cause.
- Making sure that family carers get a break from their responsibilities by bringing alternative carers for a holiday break – or arranging for the person with dementia to stay with other members of family or friends or in a specialised unit while the main carer takes a weekend or longer break.
- Ensuring that carers have good access to practical help in the home, as well as financial support and a key professional advisor to help with any issues that arise.
Latest research into Alzheimer’s
Plaques: Microscopic clumps of the protein called amyloid are a characteristic sign of Alzheimer's disease. Several drugs — known as monoclonal antibodies — may prevent amyloid from clumping into plaques and help the body clear the amyloid from the brain.
Keeping tau from tangling: A vital brain cell transport system collapses when a protein called tau twists into microscopic fibers called tangles, which are another common brain abnormality of Alzheimer's. Researchers are looking at ways to prevent tau from forming tangles.
Reducing inflammation: Alzheimer's causes chronic, low-level brain cell inflammation. Researchers are studying ways to treat inflammatory processes at work in Alzheimer's disease.
Insulin resistance: Researchers are studying the effects of insulin on the brain and brain cell function, and insulin changes in the brain that may be related to Alzheimer's. A trial is testing an insulin nasal spray to determine if it slows the progression of Alzheimer's.
Heart-head connection: The risk of developing Alzheimer's appears to increase as a result of many conditions that damage the heart or arteries. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Hormones: Estrogen-based hormone therapy for at least a year during peri-menopause or early menopause appeared to protect thinking and memory in women with a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease.
The Helderberg Society for the Aged
The Helderberg Society for the Aged provides a variety of secure lifestyle options for elderly people in an environment of compassion and care. We are specifically equipped to assist residents in all levels of frail care, including Alzheimer’s and understand the coping mechanisms required to ensure the least stress possible for both patient and family. Our Support Centre offers specialised attention to those struggling with daily interactions. Today there are many therapeutic ways to improve mental agility and the ability to maintain social connections.
We believe life should be lived to the fullest for all the people within our services which encompass Independent Living, Assisted Living, Home-based Care and Frail Care.
Find out more about us: www.hsfa.org.za