Alzheimer's disease - a young person’s guide

Written by: 
Monica Lalanda, an Emergency Medicine doctor. Monica is also a medical writer and illustrator

We all forget things every now and then; it is part of being human. You might forget to take a homework book to school, for example, or leave your trainers at home, even though you have football on Thursday. But when someone is elderly, becoming very forgetful could be the first sign that they are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that affects the normal function of the brain.

One of the confusing aspects of the disease is that people who have it usually look perfectly healthy on the outside, unlike some other illnesses that make you look unwell.

Read on to find out more information about:

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Your brain is made up of millions of special nerveBundle of fibres that carries information in the form of electrical impulses. cells called neurons. These cells are linked to one another by tiny connections called synapses into very complicated networks, just like the inside of a computer. Messages and information speed through these networks, controlling absolutely everything that happens in your body. Your brain is responsible for your memories, thoughts, decisions, movements and anything that you plan, and also for those functions your body performs without you even having to think about it, such as breathing, swallowing or making your heart beat.[1]

Alzheimer’s disease, a common illness that affects 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 and 1 in 6 people over the age of 80,[2] interferes with the normal working of the brain. In people who have the disease, the neurons lose the information stored on them and therefore become unable to create new connections with other neurons; old connections break up too. As the disease gets worse, the brain cells begin to die, but this doesn’t kill the person. In fact, a person with Alzheimer’s disease can live for over 20 years with the disease.

Even if we know how Alzheimer’s disease affects the way the brain works, so far nobody has managed to find out exactly why it happens.[1]

What happens when someone has Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is known as a degenerative illness because it progresses slowly; the changes from one week to the next are hardly noticeable. During the first stages, people with this disease become unusually forgetful and this affects their ability to remember common facts or perform simple routines (they may, for example, lose their glasses or keys frequently), or to recall the names of familiar objects or people that they see regularly.

As the disease evolves, people affected lose the ability to do simple tasks such as finding their way back home from the shops. They may become confused by simple things that they don’t seem to understand any more, for instance, how to use the kettle. They may seem aware that things are not quite right and become frustrated and sometimes distressed or even sad and depressed.

As time goes by, some areas of the brain seem to shut down slowly so that those with the disease may now no longer recognise familiar people or places. Symptoms progress from not knowing how to use the kettle to not having a clue what a kettle is. The affected person might remember you and hug you, they might be happy to see you one day and another day might ask you who you are and what you want, or might even look frightened to see you. This phase is very distressing for loved ones since the person is still exactly the same on the outside but may seem like a complete stranger otherwise. However, as the disease progresses, people with Alzheimer’s may no longer seem distressed, since there is little recollection of things having been different in the past. They may not even remember who they are themselves.

Slowly, in the months and years to come, people with Alzheimer’s disease become more and more dependant, unable to do simple tasks such as eating or using the bathroom and needing more and more support to survive. In some ways this stage can seem similar to becoming a toddler or even a baby all over again.

Eventually, even the most basic orders that the brain sends to the body start failing and people with Alzheimer’s disease forget how to move or swallow. They may get infections in the skin from having to lie down all day, or infections in the lungs (pneumoniaInflammation of one or both lungs.) as some food can end up going down the breathing pipe (this is called aspiration of food), or they may develop urine infections because they cannot empty the bladderThe organ that stores urine. properly when they pass urine. The cause of death in most people with Alzheimer’s disease is an infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites.; even if this is not the case, the brain would eventually stop telling the heart to beat or the lungs to breathe.[2,3]

Is there any treatment for Alzheimer’s disease?

Unfortunately, even though much research is being done to find an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, at this time there isn’t a cure. There is a medication that can slow down the symptoms for a limited amount of time, and some medicines are available that can help people with Alzheimer’s disease if they suffer depression because of it.[3]

Can I help?

When someone you love has Alzheimer’s disease, you might feel sad and even angry. During the first stages, it can be frustrating. When the person asks you the same question again and again, it is not because they want to annoy you - remember, the brain seems incapable of storing new information, even the simplest fact. Try to be patient. It is not easy to deal with the fact that the person you love may not even remember you; this will cause some distress and sadness in all the members of your family. It might help to talk about it openly.

Could I get Alzheimer’s disease too?

Children do not get Alzheimer’s disease; in fact, it is rare in people younger than 65 years old and more common in those over 80 years of age. The illness may run in families, which means you are a bit more likely to develop it if a close relative had it. That doesn’t mean that if your grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease you will definitely get it as well - it is only a risk factor.

The good news is that it appears that having a healthier way of life might help prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s disease. Here are a few things that could help:[4]

  • Be active. Both physical and intellectual activities help
  • Eat healthily. Tucking into lots of food with vitamins E and C (such as fruit and vegetables) could lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Avoid eating too much fatOne of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body.
  • Get an education. Apparently stimulating your brain through educational achievements could work as a cushion against brain impairment.
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