Dementia

20 January 2017

Alzheimer’s disease and your brain

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative disease with no known cure. Here’s how it affects your brain.

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Alzheimer’s causes your brain cells to degenerate and die, destroying memory and mental functions. Initially you may notice difficulty in remembering simple things and some confusion. But, as the disease progresses, you’ll start to forget important people (family members) and even display personality changes. 

Your brain

Although experts don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s, they’ve begun to understand how it affects the brain. At a basic level, the disease leads to nerve cell death and tissue loss; the brain shrinks and, as it does so, nearly all its functions are affected. 

Cortex: This part of your brain is responsible for planning, thinking and remembering. Alzheimer’s causes the cortex to shrivel up over time, affecting these functions. 

Hippocampus: Your memories are formed and stored here, and as the hippocampus shrinks, so does your ability to form new memories. 
Ventricles: These fluid-filled spaces are a communicating network – they grow larger as the disease progresses. 

Nerve cells: Experts can actually see the effects of Alzheimer’s on the brain tissue under a microscope. There are far fewer nerve cells and synapses in a brain with Alzheimer’s than a healthy one. 

Read: People-oriented jobs may help lower Alzheimer's risk

Rate of progression

It can take years before the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s first appear. Keep in mind that Alzheimer’s will affect people differently – whether through the symptoms they display or how the disease progress. 

1. Early stage: Plaques and tangles start to form, affecting areas responsible for learning, memory, thinking and planning. Plaques are abnormal clusters of protein fragments that build up between the nerve cells, while tangles are made up of another protein. Experts don’t know what causes the tissue loss but believe plaques and tangles could be responsible. 
2. Mild to moderate stage: More plaques and tangles develop – at this stage, you begin to get confused, have trouble expressing yourself and organising thoughts, which can interfere with your work and/or social life. Many people are first diagnosed during these stages. 
3. Advanced stage: At this point, most of your cortex has been severely damaged. You’ll start to lose your ability to communicate, recognise family members and even care for yourself. 

Read: Preventing Alzheimer's disease

Do people die from Alzheimer’s?

Comedic actor Gene Wilder (83) died last year from complications relating to Alzheimer’s disease. These complications can include the following: 

• Patients can have trouble swallowing and may accidentally inhale food or liquids, which can cause aspiration pneumonia. 
• Patients may lose a lot of weight, weakening their immune system and putting them at risk of a life-threatening infection. 
• Patients become bedridden in the later stages of the disease, increasing their risk of fatal blood clots. 

Read more:

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease

More difficult to diagnose Alzheimer's in women

20 percent of Alzheimer's cases may be misdiagnosed

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