Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, irreversible loss of brain function. With a few exceptions, the disease usually begins after the age of 60. It increases in frequency as people age. At the beginning of the disease, the main issues are memory lapses and disorientation. As time goes by, the increasing decline in brain function leads to impairment of the remaining bodily functions and the internal organs.
Vascular (affecting the blood vessels) dementia and Alzheimer's disease are among the most common types of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease was named after the doctor Alois Alzheimer, who first described the symptoms at the beginning of the 20th century. Dementia is characterised by an increasing loss of cerebral function. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, changed proteins which are deposited in the nerve cells are considered to be responsible for destroying the brain cells. It is unclear why this beta-amyloid protein deposit occurs in Alzheimer’s patients. In the case of vascular dementia, a circulatory defect in the brain due to vascular calcification is responsible for the dementia. Mixed forms of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia are not uncommon in elderly people.
The main symptom of dementia is a decline in cerebral performance. Memory lapses are usually the first sign of the onset of dementia. However, the normal memory lapses which occur as part of the ageing process should not be confused with dementia. Dementia patients typically also quickly become disorientated. Those affected are no longer able to find or recognise places that are well known to them, and lose all sense of time (time of the day/year). With the loss of the memory function and orientation, they often undergo a change of personality, and become depressed and delusional. Alzheimer's disease can progress differently in every individual. It usually takes several years before essential bodily functions such as swallowing or breathing are affected.
Dementia can be reliably differentiated from normal age-related memory loss with neurological tests. If there is suspected dementia, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain is usually carried out. A decline in cerebral volume can be determined in the MRI. The examination also helps to differentiate vascular dementia from Alzheimer's disease. Amyloid deposits can usually only be detected with a brain examination after death. At present, in-depth research is being carried out into ways to detect the changed beta-amyloid in the brain fluid (cerebrospinal fluid) or in the blood.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment focuses on alleviating the symptoms and slowing the reduction in brain performance. This can be supported with the help of medication and targeted exercises to retain the brain function. Those affected require professional support in a protected environment involving occupational therapies such as games, painting, cooking, music and socialisation.