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The dark side of dementia

Alzheimer’s is a heartbreaking disease, with more than 20 million Alzheimer’s sufferers worldwide. It is the most common form of dementia and causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour.

The dark side of dementia

I have a friend whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in her early 60s a few years ago.  Her mental abilities have been declining quite rapidly since the diagnosis, and her husband and family have been adjusting their expectations and lifestyle as the disease progresses. My friend’s mother still lives at home, but her husband now cares for her full time and he is the only person she now recognises. It is a confronting and challenging situation for everyone involved, including my friend, whose mother no longer recognises him, and he no longer recognises the capable and independent woman she once was.

Alzheimer’s is a heartbreaking disease, with more than 20 million Alzheimer’s sufferers worldwide. It is the most common form of dementia and causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, and while the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, up to five percent of people have early onset Alzheimer’s which occurs when someone is in their 40s or 50s.

The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information. As Alzheimer’s advances through the brain, it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood and behaviour changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and caregivers; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, early detection is vital as there are treatments to temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the 10 warning signs include:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems like following a familiar recipe
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
  4. Confusion with time or place
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  8. Decreased or poor judgment
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
  10. Changes in mood and personality

Scientists at UCLA have discovered a new genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease by screening people’s DNA and then using an advanced type of scan to visualise their brains’ connections.

“We found a change in our genetic code that boosts our risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” said the study’s senior author, Paul Thompson, a UCLA professor of neurology and a member of the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.

“If you have this variant in your DNA, your brain connections are weaker. As you get older, faulty brain connections increase your risk of dementia.”

As early detection is key, this screening is an important development. The researchers also believe this test could provide a route to a cure.

“Much of your risk for disease is written in your DNA, so the genome is a good place to look for new drug targets,” said Thompson.

If people know they have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, they can also start prevention techniques sooner. According to Alzheimer’s Association, emerging evidence suggests there are steps you can take to help keep your brain healthier as you age. These steps might also reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. These prevention techniques include:

  • Staying physically active
  • Having a healthy diet that keeps your cholesterol levels in check and is rich in dark vegetables and fruit
  • Staying socially active
  • Staying mentally active
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