Alzheimer's Disease: Symptoms and Treatment

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Alzheimer's disease is a chronic progressive neurological disorder which results in the impairment of memory and many cognitive functions such as, problem-solving, learning and attention. As a result, patients with this form of dementia causes brain failure and ultimately, death. During the course of this disease, structures called plaques and tangles build up. These are simply protein structures that build up within the brain and lead to the loss of nerve cells and portions of brain tissue (Alzheimer's Society, 2017). Because of the loss of these nerve cells in the brain, certain chemicals such as neurotransmitters are not being produced or transmitted effectively. In general, there is a total of seven stages of Alzheimer's disease which are simply different levels to represent a neurological decline.

There is a wide array of symptoms that come with this disease; many of which could result into other health conditions being diagnosed. In addition to this, a number of tests are needed to rule out any other health conditions. Even though there is no individual test that is used to determine the certainty of the disease, healthcare professionals need to run a number of tests to first rule out any other disease that could be the cause or to identify any underlying neurological conditions. By conducting a straightforward blood test, healthcare professionals can rule out other conditions such as vitamin deficiencies and thyroid infections. A brain scan is also used to provide a scan of the brain in order for doctors to analyse specific areas of the brain. In cases where a brain scan is used to help diagnose the condition, healthcare professionals look for any changes with the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex, as these are the areas where the nerve cells get damaged. CT and MRI scans are predominantly used for this procedure as they can illustrate any loss in brain mass, which is due to the loss of nerve cells. Scientists do not currently know what causes this condition to arise in patients, so instrumental analysis is used.

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In the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s, the symptoms include acute memory loss and also impaired judgement. This changes in behaviour and actions on a day to day basis. The earliest or mild stage of the disease begins with minor changes in the patient’s cognitive ability and behaviour. This is the stage where a misdiagnosis is more likely to occur, such as ageing. There are some memory issues as well. The patient could forget conversations and mislay items around their home. They would also become slower at grasping newer ideas and show poor judgment. The moderate stage is where the majority of symptoms take hold. The person with the disease may require constant reminders to eat, drink and become increasingly forgetful. Emotional changes would also occur with the person becoming increasingly upset, angry or even aggressive as a result of the memory loss. The person also becomes more delusional and hallucinations may occur. During the late or severe stage, the patient gradually becomes more dependant on healthcare professionals such as nurses and carers. Pronounced memory loss, difficulty in eating and the gradual loss of speech are prevailing symptoms in this stage. The patient usually becomes restless and easily confused.

Research is still being undertaken in order to understand Alzheimer’s disease. Because of this, there is not many treatments available to patients as a form of primary care. However, there are some drugs which can help maintain cognitive and mental functions, slow down the main symptoms of the disease, such as memory loss, and manage behavioural symptoms (National Institute of Ageing, 2018). The majority of drugs work better in the early or moderate stages of the disease, however what must be understood is that these medications cannot stop the disease but slow it down. Examples of such drugs are known as Cholinesterase inhibitors. These drugs inhibit the enzyme cholinesterase, which breaks down the neurotransmitter chemical acetylcholine in the brain. If more of these enzymes are inhibited the acetylcholine molecules accumulate in the brain and results in more communication within the brain. This then aids memory and cognitive function. For treating severe cases, extra drugs are used to block the toxic effects that may arise due to the high concentration of chemicals within the brain. These drugs help supress the negative impacts. Examples of these include NMDA (N-Methyl D-Aspartate), and other cholinesterase inhibitors. Usually low doses are administrated and built upon, over the course of the treatment. However, there are side effects associated with taking such drugs, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and anorexia.

From an economic perspective, the cost of Alzheimer’s disease is rising per year. This includes the diagnosis, treatment and research of the disease. In effect, the UK spent £26.3 billion in 2015. Additionally, 1.34 billion hours were dedicated to the care of the patients with the disease (Alzheimers Society, 2015). Institutions, such as the Alzheimer’s society also conduct research in prevailing medicines, effective treatments and also the physiological aspect to the disease. At the current rate of increase in the number of cases, the projection of the amount of people who will have the disease in 2025 would be over one million people. This would also increase the cost.

Furthermore, this disease carries a social importance. Patients with this disease not only receive care from nurses, but from family members. This can have a toll at the general wellbeing and mental health when caring for their family members. These family members could also have to take time off from their jobs to help care for their loved ones which ultimately decreases the amount they earn.

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