What is Alzheimer’s in plain English…
Alzheimer’s is a story of two halves- Amyloid plaques and Tau tangles. In a healthy brain we have just the right amount of both Amyloid and Tau, but in a brain with Alzheimer’s we can’t control the growth and build up of either. As deposits grow they block signals from one part of the brain to another. At the same time the tangles strangle neurons meaning that brain cells die. This all starts in the hippocampus, and in most cases, Alzheimer’s will be going on for a significant amount of time before you really notice signs that something’s a miss. The hippocampus is the gateway to our memories, it is where we organise new memories and label them before storing them for use at a later date. So when brain cells start dying off in this area of the brain, due to those Plaques and Tangles, our ability to remember is affected, hence the association between Alzheimer’s and memory loss. When the plaques and tangles have had their fill of the hippocampus they will move on to various other parts of the brain.
From here on in every Alzheimer’s path is different, it can sweep through the brain systematically, moving from one lobe to another, as shown in this video.
Or it can take a more scatter gun approach, affecting numerous parts at once, making it harder to assess the speed of deterioration. With the illness lasting, on average, 8-10 years- turning off one light switch in each part of the brain behind it as it goes, the last switch it turns off is the life support aspect of our brain, which controls heart and respiratory function.
There is no cure yet for Alzheimer’s, but if diagnosed early there are medicines which can be used to try and slowdown the spread of plaques and tangles.
What are the key symptoms?
As we found out earlier Alzheimer’s attacks the hippocampus first, cutting off the communications between cells. As the Hippocampus is responsible for memory creation and location it is not surprising that one of the most common symptoms is not being able to remember certain things. it can be tough to spot this symptom as with old age can come memory loss, start to pay attention if you or a loved one is having issues recalling short term memories.
The troubles that cause memory loss have a large impact on our capability to understand, interpret and remember new skills or information. The behaviour or information just isn’t passed down the line of communication to an extent were it can be stored properly and then recalled. Some may struggle with remembering names of relatively new faces. Furthermore some may struggle to recall plans discussed for the day ahead. This can be very frustrating, but there are things that you can do to slow this process.
Can you put the kettle on?- I’m not sure how. In early to mid stages of Alzheimer’s sometimes the simplest of tasks, like making a cup of tea can seem hard. The first part of this being that you just can’t quite remember where to start with the task in hand. With Alzheimer’s often the processes of how we do things get jumbled, so steps like boiling the kettle, putting a teabag in a cup, pouring the water and adding milk can get jumbled up and we struggle to do the tasks that usually come naturally and are well rehearsed to us.
Alzheimer’s can make us have itchy feet, many find that they feel the need to walk around a lot, quite often it is considered to be wandering and fidgeting, but in fact they have a reason for moving around so much, in their mind they are on a mission, whereas to the onlooker they appear to be meandering aimlessly. This ties in quite frequently with a more concerning issue, this wandering can be taken outside of the house, where some find that they get lost and confused by their surroundings, and can struggle to find their way home again. There are now several tracking devices out on the market that can alert you to when a loved one may be lost or wandering further afield than they are comfortable with, you can look at some of these here.
Visuospatial perception, wow that’s a mouthful, deteriorates naturally over time as we age. Visuospatial perception is what helps us see things in 3D, it helps us to detect and interpret what we see in our line of vision and what our body needs to do as a result. For example it is what makes stairs look as they do and make us react appropriately and and take a step up. Some Dementia’s Alzheimer’s in particular can cause the link between the eye and the brain to deteriorate faster, struggling with contrast between objects and background, as well as the interpretation of colours along with how much of the visual field you can actually see. Altogether this increases the risks of falls and trips as our body doesn’t respond as it should to what we see in front of us.
With Thanks to: Alzheimer’s Society, NHS Choices, NIH, Alz.org, World Health Organisation
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