Seven things about Alzheimer’s Disease you need to know — but were too afraid to ask
by Justin Ian Chia
In line with Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, HiDoc introduces HiDoc Pulse, our holistic health series, designed to empower you with knowledge of health conditions and their treatments. We believe that this understanding will help our platform’s users better manage their health concerns.
Because Alzheimer’s Disease is a mental illness exacerbated by aging, it is everyone’s concern. The most common form of dementia, it is a progressive disorder that tends to present itself from the age of 65.
A 2015 study led by the Institute of Mental Health estimates that dementia will affect one in 10 people aged 60 and above. The National Neuroscience Institute also reported in 2018 that 40,000 patients suffered from dementia in Singapore. By 2030, an estimated 80,000 persons will be diagnosed with dementia.
More than ever, education about the disease, along with its treatment and prevention, is needed to develop an understanding of how it impacts lives.
- Alzheimer’s Disease is progressive
As it causes brain cells to waste away and die, its onset signals a continuous decline in thinking, behavioural and social skills, eventually leading to a disruption in a person’s ability to function independently.
2. When forgetting can be a sign of something more serious
Among its earliest signs is forgetting recent events or conversations, and later, sufferers can develop severe memory impairment, losing the ability to perform everyday tasks. In advanced stages, there might even be severe loss of brain function — such as dehydration, malnutrition or infection — resulting in death. The Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) identifies adverse cognitive and behavioural changes as early signs which suggest an individual has Alzheimer’s Disease. Poor memory and confusion concerning one’s sense of time and place are common cognitive changes while behavioural changes include a sudden onset of depression and paranoia.
3. Help for sufferers is mainly in management of the disease
While there remains no cure for the present, medications may temporarily improve symptoms or slow its rate of decline, while treatments can sometimes help sufferers maximize function for a time. To support those with Alzheimer’s Disease and their caregivers, various programs and services also help. But there remains no permanent cure or treatment to alter its progression in the brain.
4. Alzheimer’s Disease is a form of dementia
The term dementia is used to describe a group of symptoms which affect cognitive skills such as memory and thinking severely enough that quality of life and personal wellbeing are compromised. Many diseases can cause dementia but the most common is Alzheimer’s Disease. Its progression is gradual as detrimental changes occurring in the brain of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease begin years before any visible signs of the disease. This period is known as the preclinical phase of Alzheimer’s Disease and leads into 3 progressive stages: mild (frequent memory and decision-making lapses); moderate (increasing inability to remember basic information and unexpected mood/personality changes); and severe (breakdown in independent movement, thinking and communicating).
5. Alzheimer’s Disease keeps brain cells from effective communication
The disease occurs when elevated levels of certain proteins inside and outside of brain cells cause them to be unhealthy and block off communication with other cells. Dementia happens when brain cells are so damaged they are unable to communicate with one another. When cells in any particular region of the brain are damaged, that region is unable to carry out its proper tasks, leading to a weakening of brain functions, such as movement and reasoning. For example, the hippocampus plays a key role in the brain’s ability to remember and learn as it stores our long-term memory. As its brain cells are some of the first to degenerate due to Alzheimer’s Disease, this helps explain why loss of memory is frequently the earliest symptom of the disease.
6. Alzheimer’s Disease can be hereditary
It depends on the type of Alzheimer’s Disease afflicting someone. For instance, early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease (which afflicts those between 30–50 years of age), the hereditary risk cannot be entirely ignored. For late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease (which afflicts those above the age of 65), the hereditary risk seems far less serious. People in this older age group should pay more attention to medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and hyperlipidemia (or abnormally elevated levels of fat proteins in blood) which increase the risk profile of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
7. Dementia screenings may cause more harm than good
The Ministry of Health in Singapore advises against undergoing screening for dementia in the absence of symptoms. Current medical tests cannot entirely confirm a diagnosis for dementia (particularly in its early stages), the result being that “false positives could lead to unnecessary treatments while false negatives could lead to misleading assurance”.
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