World Alzheimer's Day – "Diagnosing Dementia: See It Sooner"

by Savitha C Muppala on  September 19, 2009 at 4:47 PM Health In Focus
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World Alzheimer's Day falls on September 21st, 2009, embodying the theme, 'Diagnosing Dementia: See It Sooner'.
World Alzheimer's Day –
World Alzheimer's Day – "Diagnosing Dementia: See It Sooner"

Ignorance about the facts of the disease wreaks havoc in the lives of patients and their families. Most often, family members dismiss the initial symptoms as a natural part of ageing. Patients are brought to a specialist only after the patient's health has considerably deteriorated.

Awareness about the symptoms and risk factors of Alzheimer's disease is crucial in seeking timely medical help for the patients. The focus of initiatives this year, shifts on the importance of diagnosing the disease early, which is the only way to control some of its life-altering symptoms and impede the progression of the disease to a certain extent.

The Silent Killer

Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a complex brain disorder which takes its name after the German physician, Alois Alzheimer, who first identified the disease in 1907.  Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia affecting people over the age of 60.

During the initial stages of the disease, parts of the brain which control thought, memory and language take a beating. The symptoms could manifest as difficulties with concentration, memory problems, confusion, mood swings, alterations in personality, and difficulty in language. As the disease progresses, patients are unable to perform day to day tasks. They become entirely dependant on their families or caregivers. 

Unfortunately, the disease has no cure. However, there are drugs which can control the symptoms for a certain time period and delay the progression of the disease, provided the treatment is started in the initial stages.

Statistics on Alzheimer's Disease

• Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia.

• About 26 million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer's disease. The figure is expected to grow to 106 million by 2050.

• By 2010, India will have around 10 million people suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

• Each year about 350,000 fresh cases of Alzheimer's disease are diagnosed.

• The disease most commonly strikes after the age of 60 and the risk is higher as people catch up with age.  It is a rare occurrence among the younger lot.

• Hereditary factors contribute to 5% of the cases. Early-onset Alzheimer's disease can strike anywhere between 30-60 years.

• Nearly 70% of Alzheimer's sufferers are cared by their family members at home.

Risk Factors

Age happens to be the greatest risk factor for developing this disease. Majority of the cases are late-onset Alzheimer's, developing over the age of 65.

Early-onset Alzheimer's or Familial Alzheimer's disease (FAD) is relatively rare affecting about 5 percent of patients. Familial Alzheimer's disease manifests early during the 30's and offspring of such people carry a 50% chance of developing the disease.

• Is there a link between Type 2 Diabetes and Alzheimer's disease? Scientists opine that when the body is unable to convert blood sugar into energy effectively, this results in elevated levels of insulin and blood sugar. This condition may harm the brain and enhance the risk of Alzheimer's.

• It is well known that high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Now, researchers feel that High BP and cholesterol can also increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. High blood pressure weakens certain areas in the brain dealing with memory, language and thought process which may trigger the onset of Alzheimer's. Further, when cholesterol levels are high, they could cause protein retention in the brain, and enhance the risk of Alzheimer's.

Symptoms & Stages of Alzheimer's Disease

Initial symptoms of Alzheimer's disease could manifest as difficulties with concentration, memory problems, confusion, mood swings, alterations in personality, and difficulty in language. The initial symptoms are very mild and may often go unnoticed. Even the patients may not make too much of these symptoms.

The progression of the disease can be categorized into three stages although the severity of symptoms could differ among patients.

During the first stage, symptoms are mild, lasting anywhere from 2 to 4 years. During this stage patients may feel less energetic, slow to respond and may exhibit slight loss of memory. They could tend to be withdrawn and may prefer the familiar over new things. They portray some amount of confusion in organizing day to day tasks. They are unable to plan well or take decisions. They may also exhibit minor changes in personality and mood.

During the second stage which can last anywhere from 2 to 10 years, the patient exhibits obvious signs of disability. Though they are still capable of performing simple tasks, they need help with the difficult ones.  Some of them may even need help with dressing, grooming and eating. They are disconnected with reality and often seem confused with the present and the past. Essentially, they are unable to grasp present events. They may not be able to recognize familiar faces.

It is not safe to leave patients alone at this stage, as they could get lost somewhere and forget how to get back home. They may have trouble falling asleep, may exhibit disturbed and aggressive behavior.

The last stage is very severe and may last anywhere from 1 to 3 years. The patients have no control over their bodily functions; they may have trouble swallowing food, and will have no control over their bowel or bladder. Patients become entirely dependant on their care-givers. They may sleep more than usual. They could also contract other illnesses during this time, as they are already weak and their movement is restricted. Many such patients fall prey to respiratory illnesses.

Diagnosis is made after a thorough physical examination, neuropsychological tests and laboratory tests. Physicians study the history of mental and behavioral symptoms to diagnose the disease. Post diagnoses, patients suffering from this disease go on to live for about 8-10 years and in rare cases may even live for 20 years.

Consult your Doctor without delay

If you know of someone exhibiting the symptoms mentioned, it could be a sign of Alzheimer's disease. It is important to consult the physician especially if the symptoms have begun to interfere with normal life.

A physician who has rich experience and knowledge in memory problems and dementia will be equipped to make a correct diagnosis after a thorough investigation. With timely medication, it is possible to retard the advancement of the disease and slow cognitive decline. Early screening and diagnosis is crucial as most medications are effective only during the early stages of the disease.

Source: Medindia

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