In the UK today, over 850,000 people are living with dementia. Alzheimer’s disease affects up to 75 percent of those diagnosed with dementia.
Each year, new Alzheimer’s breakthroughs are made across the world, and while scientists are still investigating how we can prevent the disease, progress is being made in better detection, and better treatment.
1. How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed?
For many, the diagnosis of dementia or Alzhiemer’s starts with a visit to the GP – this usually happens because an older person is worried about their memory, or is having problems concentrating.
It’s important to remember that forgetfulness is a natural part of aging, and can also be caused by things like depression, hormonal imbalance, or by taking particular medications. Therefore memory problems won’t always be a sign of something more serious.
If the GP feels it’s necessary, they’ll make a referral either to a neurologist or an elderly care physician, at a specialist memory clinic. These specialists work with older people and their families to get a good understanding of the problems they’re experiencing. There will also be a number of pen and paper tests for the older person to complete that assess memory, attention span, orientation, and communication skills.
These tests will often be done alongside a CT or MRI scan of the brain. These scans look for damage in parts of the brain, and can be used to rule out other causes of memory loss.
AI and Alzheimer’s diagnosis
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis usually takes two or three visits to a memory clinic, so that doctors can look at changes in the brain over time. However, researchers are working hard to speed this process up.
Doctors at Addenbrooke Hospital in Cambridge have been trialling the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to identify patterns in brain scans – for quicker, more accurate diagnosis.
While still in the early stages of testing, they hope that in the future this tool could provide people with a ‘same day’ diagnosis – and help them get treatment earlier.
Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s
This year, the organisers of World Alzheimer’s Month want to help more people understand the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s.
While there are a number of reasons why a person may experience some of the symptoms below, it’s always best to talk to a GP to ease worries and rule out anything serious.
- Forgetting recent conversations
- Losing things regularly
- Forgetting what things are called
- Having trouble thinking of the right word
- Asking more questions than usual
- Finding it difficult to make decisions
- Feeling anxious or agitated often
2. What to expect when diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently, however as with any condition that impacts how we think, wondering what the future holds is only natural after a diagnosis.
Quality of life with Alzheimer’s disease
It’s absolutely possible to live a full, active and social life after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Keeping in touch with people, and continuing with hobbies and clubs can help maintain skills and memory, and be hugely uplifting.
Those living with dementia may sometimes find communication difficult, and their relationships with the people around them may change. It’s really important to use the moments when communication seems to be flowing more freely to talk about family and friends, and to understand how best to provide support.
Feeling in control is incredibly important, especially for those who have noticed a change in their ability to do particular things. Making a list of the tasks that are becoming difficult, working out if it’s necessary, or if someone or something else can help make it easier, can restore a sense of control and capability.
Anxiety and Alzheimer’s
Anxiety is common for those living with Alzheimer’s disease, particularly in the early stages when they may be worried about their future. Often it can make dementia symptoms such as difficulties with planning and decision making worse, so seeking help as soon as possible is key.
Giving someone a safe, calm space to talk about how they’re feeling, and responding to their concerns could help. For example, if they’re anxious about forgetting who people are, jotting names down on the back of photos could provide reassurance.
In cases of anxiety, it’s always recommended to speak to a GP too.
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3. Are there any new Alzheimer’s breakthroughs?
There are a wide range of drugs and therapeutic treatments available that help people with Alzheimer’s disease to live fulfilling lives. However, new research into how we could treat and prevent the disease in the future is happening every day.
Stem cell treatment for Alzheimer’s
Stem cells have two very important properties. They are able to reproduce quickly, many times over, and can also be grown into brain cells. This means they could potentially be used to repair cells damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.
While it may be some time before we know the full potential of stem cell treatments, a number of studies have shown promising results in their potential to improve short term memory.
Deep brain stimulation for Alzheimer’s disease
Deep brain stimulation is already used to help reduce tremors in those living with Parkinson’s disease, and researchers are now looking to see if it’s a possible treatment for dementia too.
They hope that the use of a small medical device, similar to a pacemaker, could be used to electrically stimulate the brain and increase activity in areas responsible for problem solving and decision making.
Early trials have been hopeful, but a lot more research is needed before it becomes a widely available treatment.
Understanding the connection between heart and brain health
Researchers in America have been investigating whether certain blood pressure medications could help protect our memory skills as we age. With high blood pressure being a known risk factor for dementia, it’s hoped this exciting area of research could reveal a double layer of protection simply by taking everyday blood pressure medication.
4. What support is available to those living with Alzheimer’s?
In the UK there are many organisations that provide support and friendship to those impacted by Alzheimer’s. Some groups meet online or in person, while others offer telephone support calls when you need someone to talk to.
Alzheimer’s Society UK: As one of the UK’s largest support services, they hold many activities and social groups for those living with Alzheimer’s and their families in regional centres across the UK.
Alzheimer’s Association: If you need advice, or simply want someone to talk to, The Alzheimer’s Association offers a 24 hour support line, as well as an online support group AlzConnected®.
DemTalk: A free web-based toolkit to help make communication easier between those living with dementia and their loved ones.
Carers UK: From Alzheimer’s spouse support groups, to regional support centres, Carers UK is one of the largest directories of support for family members who are caring for a loved one.
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