What is Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer’s disease is a dementia condition, and is the most common type of dementia around the world. If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you will understandably have questions about the causes and symptoms, how it affects the brain, how it is different from other types of dementia, how it progresses, if there are any treatments or management techniques to help, and more. 

We understand that the days, weeks and months following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be both physically and emotionally challenging, not just for the person with the diagnosis but for their family and caregivers, too. 

At Home Instead, our aim is to help people age positively and in place by bringing expert care to their home. For nearly 20 years, we have been providing the highest standard of care, and creating industry-leading training programmes for our Care Professionals that are accredited by nursing and medical professionals. Today, we are the world’s largest global home care network, supporting over 100,000 older adults with personalised, tailored care at home. So whatever questions you have about Alzheimer’s care, we can help. 

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia in the UK, affecting around 6 in 10 people with dementia. It is a neurodegenerative condition affecting cognitive function and memory retention, and leads to the progressive deterioration of nerve cells and brain tissue over time. This can cause a range of symptoms that increase as the condition progresses. 

A person with Alzheimer’s may notice mild symptoms at first, however these will worsen over time and start to interfere with daily activities. It will gradually impair reasoning, judgement, and problem-solving abilities, and as the condition advances, the person might struggle to perform tasks that they once did effortlessly. As well as changes in physical abilities, a person with Alzheimer’s disease may also notice changes in their mood over time, such as becoming more anxious, irritable or depressed. 

You can read more about how Alzheimer’s compares to other forms of dementia in our article: The Different Types Of Dementia

what is alzheimer's

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease causes a range of symptoms that differ from person to person, and develop at different rates. People with Alzheimer’s tend to experience symptoms such as:

  • Memory problems (from mild forgetfulness in the early stages, to forgetting recent events and names of loved ones) 
  • Confusion about familiar places or people 
  • Difficulties with reasoning
  • Language and communication problems which can lead to repetitive speech patterns
  • Disorientation in time and space that can change the way they see and hear things
  • Changes in their mood, such as depression or anxiety 
  • Behavioural changes, such as agitation or irritability 
  • Challenges in problem-solving which can mean they require more help 
  • Physical challenges with carrying out everyday tasks and activities, like cooking dinner or getting dressed 

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s can initially appear after age 60, and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases with age.

What causes Alzheimer’s, and how does it affect the brain?

The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is still largely unknown, but it is thought to directly affect the function of the brain. In those who age healthily, the brain tends to shrink naturally with age to a certain extent, but it should not lose neurons in large numbers, and should continue to function mostly as normal. 

In those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, over time neurons within the brain will cease to function as they should, and will also lose connections with other neurons. Ultimately, these neurons will die, which disrupts the neuron networks that deal with typical functions, leading to symptom development. 

Initially, Alzheimer’s disease usually impairs the connections in areas of the brain that deal with memory, such as the hippocampus. Eventually it can affect other areas, and this can diminish functions such as reasoning, communication and behaviour. As more areas of the brain stop working over time, the person will likely require care for everyday activities and tasks, and to ensure their safety. Eventually, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis will lead to end-of-life care

what is alzheimer's

How is Alzheimer’s different from dementia? 

The terms Alzheimer’s and dementia tend to be used interchangeably, but they are different. Dementia is the overall condition causing cognitive decline, and there are several types of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being one of them – the most common form of the condition. As an overview, here are some of the other common forms of dementia, and how they differ from Alzheimer’s disease: 

  • Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia, affecting around 150,000 people in the UK. Unlike Alzheimer’s, this condition is caused by interruptions in the flow of blood vessels and oxygen within the brain. This means symptoms are often determined by the size, location and number of vascular changes. The symptoms of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are very similar, with issues being things like changes in memory, cognition, and behaviour. 
  • Lewy body dementia is the third most common type of dementia, affecting around 100,000 people in the UK. This type causes very similar symptoms to that of Alzheimer’s disease, which is why it is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s in the early stages. Lewy body dementia is thought to be characterised by abnormal clumps of protein gathered in cells in the brain, but symptoms are unique for this type of dementia. They can include hallucinations, fluctuations in alertness, difficulty with movement, and sleep disturbances, which are not as common in Alzheimer’s. 

Frontotemporal dementia is a less common type of dementia, but is still estimated to affect around 31,000 people in the UK. This type is most common in people aged between 40 and 60, which is younger than those who tend to suffer from Alzheimer’s. It is characterised by issues in the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain due to a buildup of proteins, and since these areas are responsible for things like personality, behaviour, language and speech, symptoms often affect these functions. Uniquely, memory loss is not the norm in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia.

How does Alzheimer’s progress over time?

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, meaning it will go through several stages before eventually leading to the need for end-of-life care. Typically the early stages of the condition will include small memory lapses and mild cognitive difficulties, with some being subtle enough that they may not be noticed at all. A person with early stage Alzheimer’s may find they can continue to live mostly as they have previously, and may only need help with a few things. 

As the condition advances and reaches the middle stage, they may start to struggle with daily activities, familiar tasks, and experience issues with things like disorientation, communication and their mood. 

In the severe stage, everyday functions such as dressing, eating and mobility usually become challenging, and language and communication may deteriorate further. As end-of-life care approaches, a person with Alzheimer’s will usually begin to lose awareness of their surroundings and struggle to recognise loved ones. 

It is unknown how long each stage will last for Alzheimer’s patients as each person’s condition will develop at a different rate, however research suggests those with Alzheimer’s may experience a longer survival time than those with vascular or Lewy body dementia. Although it is estimated that those with Alzheimer’s may live between 4 and 8 years after diagnosis, they could also live up to 20 years after diagnosis if they are otherwise healthy. 

You can read more about the different stages someone with Alzheimer’s disease may experience in our article: Managing The Stages Of Dementia

what is alzheimer's

Are there any treatments available? 

There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, so treatment involves managing the condition in order to promote wellbeing and quality of life throughout the progression of the disease. Certain treatments can help to alleviate the symptoms and slow progression. These include things like:

  • Medications to slow progression: Some medicines can be offered to help maintain high levels of acetylcholine in the brain, which can help nerve cells send and receive signals, and help manage the cognitive symptoms experienced. This can improve overall quality of life for some people living with the condition, and you can speak to your GP about this if you have been diagnosed. 
  • Medications to address symptoms:Research shows that treating the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s can improve quality of life. This could include antidepressants, sleep aids, antipsychotics, anti-anxiety medications and more. Again, your GP can offer more information on the medications that could help you. 
  • Lifestyle interventions: These might include regular movement and exercise, adopting a healthy diet, regular activities to stimulate cognitive function, and more. If you receive home care, your Care Professional can help with things like mobility support, travel to social events, cooking healthy meals, and setting up regular activities to stimulate the brain. 
  • Therapies: Things like occupational therapy and speech therapy can offer different benefits for those with Alzheimer’s by helping to enhance functioning and offering emotional support throughout. 

Can anything be done to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s or prevent it?

Although there is no way to remove all risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in older age, there are thought to be ways to lower the risk and potentially prevent it by focusing on brain health. This often means: 

  • Adopting a regular exercise routine to promote blood flow to the brain
  • Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids to support brain function
  • Doing mentally stimulating activities such as puzzles, learning new skills, and engaging in social interactions, as these have been shown to help maintain cognitive function

While there is no guaranteed method of preventing the condition, a generally healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

If you have recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or have been living with the condition, you may be looking into future Alzheimer’s care options for when you need help at home. Thinking of the care you might need in future can be an overwhelming experience, and this is something you should not need to go through alone. 

what is alzheimer's

At Home Instead, we are always on hand to discuss what you might require to stay safe and happy in your own home, and our Care Professionals can offer expertly tailored care for everything from occasional companionship to live-in care solutions.

With Alzheimer’s, you may find you feel most safe and secure in the comfort of your own home, surrounded by familiar possessions and loved ones. If this is the case for you, reach out to us to discuss our flexible home care options. Our Care Professionals undergo a City & Guilds assured training programme, which has won a Princess Royal Training Award. The programme was created in conjunction with dementia care specialists, so we understand the best ways to care for those with a dementia diagnosis to help them live safely, happily and comfortably at home.

Home Instead is an award-winning home care provider and part of a worldwide organisation devoted to providing the highest-quality relationship-led care for older adults in their own homes. Arranging care for yourself or your loved one shouldn’t be stressful, so whatever questions you would like answered, feel free to reach out to the Home Instead team to discuss your needs.