Each of us would like to stay healthy as we grow old and enjoy life. However, more and more older people live in the past, because they suffer from Alzheimer’s.
Currently around 40 million people throughout the world suffer from Alzheimer’s. This diseases is the most common form of all dementia and there are more than 50 different types. The German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer described the disease in 1906. He discovered different protein deposits in the brain of dementia patients. Certain proteins, so-called beta-amyloid peptides, clump together outside of the brain cells and form “Alzheimer deposits”. Beta-amyloid is not bad in itself, it is also formed by healthy people. However, in the event of Alzheimer dementia, an excess accrues and damages the nerve cells even before the disease breaks out. A British study from David Snowdon showed on 678 nuns between 75 and 107 years of age that plaque deposits alone have no effects on the cognitive performances of women, because a few nuns did not have any cognitive restrictions at an old age despite advanced plaque formation. They were mentally and physically active until the end of their lives and simply “delayed” the feared symptoms of the disease.
The causes of the disease are therefore degenerative processes in the brain that lead to typical symptoms. More precisely, these are signal transmission impairments between the nerve cells in the brain. Due to these impairments, the so-called synapses die as well – these are the nerve contact sites from and following brain cells.
Typical symptoms of the disease include: the patient’s life is rolled up “from behind”. What they learned as a child will last longer, but the person is no longer able to learn anything. For example, they can remember a song or poem that they learned during their childhood, but they will no longer remember their own birthday, may forget their name and can no longer remember many things. Even though the disease may occur starting at the age of 30, the symptoms are normally first noticeable after 60. The affected individual turns strange, scattered, quirky – sometimes it is difficult for them to do certain movements.
However, not all types of forgetfulness are signs of Alzheimer dementia. Many people suffer from a mental disease, frequently depression. Depression may be accompanied with attention and concentration disorders, therefore another type of “poor memory”. Other people may receive the diagnosis of “delirious confusion”. These may be quickly developing disturbed consciousness, which is included with attention and perceptive disorders. For many older people, such confusion may occur due to a lack of hydration. If you do not drink enough during hot summer days, you may quickly reach the limits of your mental performance. In contrast to this, Alzheimer’s dementia progresses in a slow manner and without an impairment of consciousness. Forgetfulness may arise due to other neurological or internal diseases like through inflammatory diseases from the central nervous system, through hormone disorders (e.g. thyroid gland diseases), vitamin deficiency or through medications.
The problem of the diseases is that it is often not perceived by the surrounding environment. Those affected only come to the doctor with advanced symptoms. Then normally a family member provides care, the others step back. About a third of those suffering from Alzheimer’s, but also two-thirds of the caretakers, are women. The solidarity of the surrounding environment, the family, is needed here. It cannot be the case that a working daughter changes directly from childcare to elderly care – working together is enormously important here and caretakers need support and appreciation. If this does not occur, the caretakers may feel that they are not appreciated by the test person and develop feelings of disappointment, frustration and even depression. Furthermore, those suffering from the disease are very good at hiding their behavioural disorders temporarily. Thus, it is important to ask the caretaker how the disease is progressing; does the patient make threats? Do they insult? Are they violent or is it a personality that retreats and does not develop any aggression? A lot of problems can be avoided through careful contact with the patient. Men are more actively aggressive, women passively aggressive, they turn away, are closed, depending on what they learned in their youth. The patient is no longer aware of all of this as the disease progresses. They do not understand the disease, their belief is: I am not sick, you are. Everything is fine with me. However, if there is aggression or violence, medication (e.g. neuroleptics) are the final way to curb the aggression.
Advanced age and genetic causes were seen as the greatest risk factors. Today, we know that type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular diseases or smoking may accelerate the progression of the disease. Newer scientific knowledge shoes that mental under-load and a lack of movement are high risk factors. People who are not mentally stimulated and have an unstable and stressful family and social relationship have a higher risk of diseases than those who live a fulfilled life – mentally. It is nothing new that movement keeps you healthy, but the fact that those who move less have an 80 percent higher risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s is considerable. Dancing or Tai Chi, for example, are activities that promote and challenge coordination and memory skills. Memory training, like strategic games, puzzles or sudoku, are good options for keeping your brain active while young.