21st September was World Alzheimer's Day which is an international campaign aimed to raise awareness of this illness.
There is some confusion as to the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s. I for one did not know how to differentiate, but in brief, Dementia refers to a group of symptoms that affect the cognitive tasks such as memory and rationale. Dementia is a collective term for which Alzheimer’s disease falls under and is the most common cause which can lead to Dementia, estimated to be 6 in every 10 Dementia cases.
When looking at the difference between Alzheimer’s and Dementia, the key thing to remember is that the two are interlinked and are not exclusive of one another, one is a type of the other. A person with Alzheimer’s also has Dementia, but only some people with Dementia have Alzheimer’s.
At Alzheimer's Research UK statistics state that Dementia affects over 850,000 people in the UK and 44 million worldwide. It is estimated that 61% of people with Dementia are women and 39% are men. This is likely to reflect the fact that women live longer than men and age is the biggest known risk factor for the condition.
If a person has Dementia the ability of the brain to send signals between nerve cells is damaged and, as a result, affects the brain’s ability to communicate to the rest of the body which explains why simple daily tasks can prove difficult to those affected. Early symptoms can include memory loss and completing simple tasks. The condition worsens over time.
As referenced earlier, Alzheimer’s tends to affect more women than men and it is thought that the hormonal changes which occur during the menopause may be linked to the development of this disease. The theory being that the reduced level of oestrogen during the menopause might be the reason. Although both men and women produce oestrogen it is women who usually produce more of this hormone and during the menopause its production is reduced.
Males produce testosterone continuously through their lives which then converts to oestrogen inside the brain which means that they are less likely to suffer the impact of Alzheimer’s as it would seem the oestrogen is instrumental in promoting the health of the brain.
It is chemicals such as serotonin, acetylcholine and dopamine which are used to send signals around the brain plus the lack of oestrogen which can affect the effectiveness of these chemicals which is why the link to the menopause appears to be so strong. and as time goes on more and more nerve cells in the brain are damaged.
When a patient has Alzheimer’s, the changes in the brain go beyond those one would associate with the ageing process. Research into this disease is still very much ongoing but it is thought that 2 proteins Amyloid and Tau are instrumental in the development of the disease. Years before symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease appear, these damaging proteins collect in the brain: amyloid beta and tau. Clumps of amyloid accumulate first, but the tau protein is particularly noxious. Wherever clusters of the tau protein appear, brain tissue dies, triggering the confusion and memory loss that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
The impact of this disease is traumatic on families and close friends as the personality they have loved for years begins to change and disappear. It is a cruel disease for all concerned but with so much more awareness and understanding of the illness it is hoped that a reliable cure is not too far away.