Everyone’s heard of Alzheimer’s disease, yet many don’t know the details behind it, or how the scientific and pharmaceutical industries are working to develop preventative treatments.
Understanding an illness helps individuals to recognise its signs and organisations to combat the effects, together working as a society to eventually banish it to the history books. Below is some useful information on Alzheimer’s, available treatment and current studies.
What is it?
Alzheimer’s is named after Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915), the German neurologist who first identified it. As with many other forms of dementia, it shows little remorse in its victims, steadily progressing until multiple brain functions become damaged beyond repair.
These include the memory, starting with the forgetting of recent events such as conversations and actions, as well as names, places and the function of everyday objects. Over time, which is usually several years, the disease grows and causes significant detrimental changes to the injured party’s lifestyle.
What are the effects?
Many of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s for a prolonged period reach the point where confusion, disorientation, planning and problem solving become extremely difficult. This can then lead to a state in which the individual cannot speak or understand language and their environment.
Needless to say, these ongoing symptoms can give rise to changes in personality, ranging from depression and anxiety, to moments of childlike wonder or apparent disconnection from the world. Severe examples can also be accompanied by hallucinations and delusional behaviour.
Why does it develop?
Though the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is still uncertain, we do know that particular factors and events can increase the likelihood of its inception. These include old age, a family history of the condition, and the repercussions of a severe head injury.
Old age in particular is a natural state that cannot be prevented, which is why Alzheimer’s affects around 850,000 people in the UK alone, especially those aged 65 and over. The average lifespan following the onset of Alzheimer’s is usually around ten years (although it can vary on either side), making it a life-limiting disease.
Can it be treated?
Unfortunately there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, and even diagnosis is difficult during the early stages due to it being a progressive disease.
However, medication is available that can delay symptoms and reduce their intensity, at least for a limited time. Cholinesterase inhibitors are one of the two main drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s, which come in the form of donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine. These prevent the enzyme acetylcholinesterase from breaking down acetylcholine in the brain. Acetylcholine is a chemical that aids the conveyance of messages between nerve cells; by protecting it from the enzyme, the mind continues to work more effectively than it would without medication.
The other treatment uses NMDA receptor antagonists, available as memantine. This works in a similar fashion, in that it targets a particular chemical, but in a very different way. Glutamate helps to send messages between brain cells, but instead of slowing down the process, Alzheimer’s causes it to increase unregulated, damaging the brain cells. Memantine blocks the excess glutamate as much as possible, lessening the effects and essentially protecting the brain.
The future of treatment
Whilst current drugs are effective, there’s still a way to go before the damaging influence of Alzheimer’s is shut down entirely. However, impressive work is in progress around the globe, with encouraging results being released on a regular basis.
In May 2017, analysts GBI Research reported that there are 646 products in active development. Though research into Alzheimer’s has seen a high amount of clinical trial failures over the last decade, vast innovation is being applied to target proteins in the brain believed to be major accelerators of the disease.
Other research focuses on the age-old claim that fish is good for the brain, with studies showing that a moderate amount of fresh seafood in one’s diet boosts blood flow, and destroys rogue proteins through omega-3 fatty acids. Rogue proteins are a major factor in the development of Alzheimer’s, a prime example being the recent discovery of PAR-5, which has a toxic cross-seeding effect on amyloid beta proteins, causing them to multiply and clump together. This in turn damages nerve cells in the brain, leading to the aforementioned symptoms of the condition. Scientists at Alzheimer’s Research UK are excited over this discovery and making further investigations.
Alternatives to medication
As well as being prescribed medication, those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are often advised to make changes to their lifestyle and home environment. These greatly depend on personal circumstances and can include anything from rearranging furniture and creating visible prompts for everyday tasks, to reducing travel to a localised area and limiting social engagements in terms of environment.
Psychological treatments are also common, such as cognitive stimulation therapy. This is a programme of themed activities that takes place in groups and led by a healthcare professional. Incorporating different topics and small tasks, the aim is to improve mental abilities and memory in a stress-free, friendly and enjoyable way.
Reducing the risk
As with the majority of physical and neurological conditions it is believed that an active and healthy lifestyle can help to combat the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This includes eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically fit and mentally active, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake, and getting a sufficient night’s sleep.
The more people that follow this good advice, the less the effects of Alzheimer’s and a host of other diseases and conditions will take their toll on society.
Working together for a better future
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