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Alzheimer's disease is a disease of the brain and is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 50% of all cases. It is described as changes in the brain tissue resulting in a shortage of brain messenger chemicals. People with Alzheimer's disease gradually lose their sense of time and place. A major symptom is that they forget things they have just said or done, although their memory for past events may, for a time, remain clear. People with Alzheimer's find it increasingly difficult and then impossible to perform even the simplest, everyday tasks, including washing, eating and dressing. They may become uncommunicative and incontinent, sometimes with severe behavioural problems. Most eventually need 24 hour care either at home or in a nursing home.
Memory loss in Alzheimer's disease is not like normal forgetfulness. Many people, especially as they get older, find that their memory is not as good as it used to be. Alzheimer's disease is not infectious and is not linked to the person's use of his or her brain or stress. It is not linked to gender, social class, ethnic group or geographic location. Alzheimer's disease is more common among older people but younger people can be affected. It is estimated that 500,000 people in the UK suffer with some form of Alzheimer's disease.
There is no simple test to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. A diagnosis is made by taking a careful history of the person's problem from a close relative or friend, together with an examination of the person's physical and mental status. Unfortunately there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, though the patient will need varying degrees of care. However, there are some treatments available that can slow down the progression of the disease.
The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can be best understood in the context of the 3 stages of its development: early, middle and late. Not all persons with Alzheimer's disease will display these symptoms and they vary from individual to individual.
Early stage symptoms: The person may show difficulties with language, experience significant memory loss (especially short term memory), be disoriented in time and become lost in familiar places.
Middle stage symptoms: The person may become very forgetful, especially of recent events and people's names, no longer manage to live alone without problems, need assistance with toileting, bathing, washing, dressing etc, wander and sometimes get lost.
Late stage symptoms: The person may have difficulty eating, not recognise relatives, friends and familiar objects, display inappropriate behaviour in public, be confined to bed or wheelchair.