Definition of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD), also known in medical literature as Alzheimer disease, is the most common form of dementia. There is no cure for the disease, which worsens as it progresses, and eventually leads to death. It was first described by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in 1906 and was named after him. Most often, AD is diagnosed in people over 65 years of age, although the less-prevalent early-onset Alzheimer’s can occur much earlier.
Although Alzheimer’s disease develops differently for every individual, there are many common symptoms. Early symptoms are often mistakenly thought to be ‘age-related’ concerns, or manifestations of stress. In the early stages, the most common symptom is difficulty in remembering recent events. When AD is suspected, the diagnosis is usually confirmed with tests that evaluate behaviour and thinking abilities, often followed by a brain scan if available, however, examination of brain tissue is required for a definitive diagnosis. As the disease advances, symptoms can include confusion, irritability, aggression, mood swings, trouble with language, and long-term memory loss. As the sufferer declines they often withdraw from family and society. Gradually, bodily functions are lost, ultimately leading to death. Since the disease is different for each individual, predicting how it will affect the person is difficult. AD develops for an unknown and variable amount of time before becoming fully apparent, and it can progress undiagnosed for years. On average, the life expectancy following diagnosis is approximately seven years. Fewer than three percent of individuals live more than fourteen years after diagnosis.
The cause and progression of Alzheimer’s disease are not well understood. Research indicates that the disease is associated with plaques and tangles in the brain. Current treatments only help with the symptoms of the disease. There are no available treatments that stop or reverse the progression of the disease. Mental stimulation, exercise, and a balanced diet have been suggested as ways to delay cognitive symptoms (though not brain pathology) in healthy older individuals, but there is no conclusive evidence supporting an effect.
Because AD cannot be cured and is degenerative, the sufferer relies on others for assistance. The role of the main caregiver is often taken by the spouse or a close relative. Alzheimer’s disease is known for placing a great burden on caregivers; the pressures can be wide-ranging, involving social, psychological, physical, and economic elements of the caregiver’s life. In developed countries, AD is one of the most costly diseases to society.
Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease
The cause for most Alzheimer’s cases is still mostly unknown except for 1% to 5% of cases where genetic differences have been identified. Several competing hypotheses exist trying to explain the cause of the disease:
Around 0.1% of the cases are familial forms of autosomal dominant (not sex-linked) inheritance, which usually have an onset before age 65. This form of the disease is known as early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease. Most of autosomal dominant familial AD can be attributed to mutations in one of three genes: amyloid precursor protein (APP) and presenilins 1 and 2. Most mutations in the APP and presenilin genes increase the production of a small protein called Aβ42, which is the main component of senile plaques. Some of the mutations merely alter the ratio between Aβ42 and the other major forms—e.g., Aβ40—without increasing Aβ42 levels. This suggests that presenilin mutations can cause disease even if they lower the total amount of Aβ produced and may point to other roles of presenilin or a role for alterations in the function of APP and/or its fragments other than Aβ. There exist variants of the APP gene which are protective.
Most cases of Alzheimer’s disease do not exhibit autosomal-dominant inheritance and are termed sporadic AD, in which environmental and genetic differences may act as risk factors. The best known genetic risk factor is the inheritance of the ε4 allele of the apolipoprotein E (APOE). Between 40 and 80% of people with AD possess at least one APOEε4 allele. The APOEε4 allele increases the risk of the disease by three times in heterozygotes and by 15 times in homozygotes. Like many human diseases, environmental effects and genetic modifiers result in incomplete penetrance. For example, certain Nigerian populations do not show the relationship between dose of APOEε4 and incidence or age-of-onset for Alzheimer’s disease seen in other human populations. While early attempts to screen up to 400 candidate genes for association with late-onset sporadic AD (LOAD) resulted in a low yield, more recent genome-wide association studies (GWAS) turned up 13 genes (and gene clusters): CLU, PICALM, CR1, BIN1, MS4A, ABCA7, EPHA1, CD33, CD2AP, ATP5H, EXOC4, CTNNA3, RNF219.
Mutations in the TREM2 gene have been associated with a 3 to 5 times higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A suggested mechanism of action is that when TREM2 is mutated, white blood cells in the brain are no longer able to control the amount of beta amyloid present.
The oldest, on which most currently available drug therapies are based, is the cholinergic hypothesis, which proposes that AD is caused by reduced synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The cholinergic hypothesis has not maintained widespread support, largely because medications intended to treat acetylcholine deficiency have not been very effective. Other cholinergic effects have also been proposed, for example, initiation of large-scale aggregation of amyloid, leading to generalised neuroinflammation.
In 1991, the amyloid hypothesis postulated that extracellular beta-amyloid (Aβ) deposits are the fundamental cause of the disease. Support for this postulate comes from the location of the gene for the amyloid precursor protein (APP) on chromosome 21, together with the fact that people with trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) who have an extra gene copy almost universally exhibit AD by 40 years of age. Also, a specific isoform of apolipoprotein, APOE4, is a major genetic risk factor for AD. Whilst apolipoproteins enhance the breakdown of beta amyloid, some isoforms are not very effective at this task (such as APOE4), leading to excess amyloid buildup in the brain. Further evidence comes from the finding that transgenic mice that express a mutant form of the human APP gene develop fibrillar amyloid plaques and Alzheimer’s-like brain pathology with spatial learning deficits.
An experimental vaccine was found to clear the amyloid plaques in early human trials, but it did not have any significant effect on dementia. Researchers have been led to suspect non-plaque Aβ oligomers (aggregates of many monomers) as the primary pathogenic form of Aβ. These toxic oligomers, also referred to as amyloid-derived diffusible ligands (ADDLs), bind to a surface receptor on neurons and change the structure of the synapse, thereby disrupting neuronal communication. One receptor for Aβ oligomers may be the prion protein, the same protein that has been linked to mad cow disease and the related human condition, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, thus potentially linking the underlying mechanism of these neurodegenerative disorders with that of Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2009, this theory was updated, suggesting that a close relative of the beta-amyloid protein, and not necessarily the beta-amyloid itself, may be a major culprit in the disease. The theory holds that an amyloid-related mechanism that prunes neuronal connections in the brain in the fast-growth phase of early life may be triggered by ageing-related processes in later life to cause the neuronal withering of Alzheimer’s disease. N-APP, a fragment of APP from the peptide’s N-terminus, is adjacent to beta-amyloid and is cleaved from APP by one of the same enzymes. N-APP triggers the self-destruct pathway by binding to a neuronal receptor called death receptor 6 (DR6, also known as TNFRSF21). DR6 is highly expressed in the human brain regions most affected by Alzheimer’s, so it is possible that the N-APP/DR6 pathway might be hijacked in the ageing brain to cause damage. In this model, beta-amyloid plays a complementary role, by depressing synaptic function.
The tau hypothesis is the idea that tau protein abnormalities initiate the disease cascade. In this model, hyperphosphorylated tau begins to pair with other threads of tau. Eventually, they form neurofibrillary tangles inside nerve cell bodies. When this occurs, the microtubules disintegrate, collapsing the neuron’s transport system. This may result first in malfunctions in biochemical communication between neurons and later in the death of the cells.
Herpes simplex virus type 1 has also been proposed to play a causative role in people carrying the susceptible versions of the apoE gene.
Another hypothesis asserts that the disease may be caused by age-related myelin breakdown in the brain. Iron released during myelin breakdown is hypothesised to cause further damage. Homeostatic myelin repair processes contribute to the development of proteinaceous deposits such as beta-amyloid and tau.
Oxidative stress and dys-homeostasis of biometal (biology) metabolism may be significant in the formation of the pathology.
AD individuals show 70% loss of locus coeruleus cells that provide norepinephrine (in addition to its neurotransmitter role) that locally diffuses from “varicosities” as an endogenous anti-inflammatory agent in the microenvironment around the neurons, glial cells, and blood vessels in the neocortex and hippocampus. It has been shown that norepinephrine stimulates mouse microglia to suppress Aβ-induced production of cytokines and their phagocytosis of Aβ. This suggests that degeneration of the locus ceruleus might be responsible for increased Aβ deposition in AD brains.
Sign and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
The disease course is divided into four stages, with progressive patterns of cognitive and functional impairments.
The first symptoms are often mistakenly attributed to ageing or stress. Detailed neuropsychological testing can reveal mild cognitive difficulties up to eight years before a person fulfils the clinical criteria for diagnosis of AD. These early symptoms can affect the most complex daily living activities. The most noticeable deficit is memory loss, which shows up as difficulty in remembering recently learned facts and inability to acquire new information.
Subtle problems with the executive functions of attentiveness, planning, flexibility, and abstract thinking, or impairments in semantic memory (memory of meanings, and concept relationships) can also be symptomatic of the early stages of AD. Apathy can be observed at this stage, and remains the most persistent neuropsychiatric symptom throughout the course of the disease. Depressive symptoms, irritability and reduced awareness of subtle memory difficulties also occur commonly. The preclinical stage of the disease has also been termed mild cognitive impairment, but whether this term corresponds to a different diagnostic stage or identifies the first step of AD is a matter of dispute.
In people with AD the increasing impairment of learning and memory eventually leads to a definitive diagnosis. In a small portion of them, difficulties with language, executive functions, perception (agnosia), or execution of movements (apraxia) are more prominent than memory problems. AD does not affect all memory capacities equally. Older memories of the person’s life (episodic memory), facts learned (semantic memory), and implicit memory (the memory of the body on how to do things, such as using a fork to eat) are affected to a lesser degree than new facts or memories.
Language problems are mainly characterised by a shrinking vocabulary and decreased word fluency, which lead to a general impoverishment of oral and written language. In this stage, the person with Alzheimer’s is usually capable of communicating basic ideas adequately. While performing fine motor tasks such as writing, drawing or dressing, certain movement coordination and planning difficulties (apraxia) may be present but they are commonly unnoticed. As the disease progresses, people with AD can often continue to perform many tasks independently, but may need assistance or supervision with the most cognitively demanding activities.
Progressive deterioration eventually hinders independence, with subjects being unable to perform most common activities of daily living. Speech difficulties become evident due to an inability to recall vocabulary, which leads to frequent incorrect word substitutions (paraphasias). Reading and writing skills are also progressively lost. Complex motor sequences become less coordinated as time passes and AD progresses, so the risk of falling increases. During this phase, memory problems worsen, and the person may fail to recognise close relatives. Long-term memory, which was previously intact, becomes impaired.
Behavioural and neuropsychiatric changes become more prevalent. Common manifestations are wandering, irritability and labile affect, leading to crying, outbursts of unpremeditated aggression, or resistance to caregiving. Sundowning can also appear. Approximately 30% of people with AD develop illusionary misidentifications and other delusional symptoms. Subjects also lose insight of their disease process and limitations (anosognosia). Urinary incontinence can develop. These symptoms create stress for relatives and caretakers, which can be reduced by moving the person from home care to other long-term care facilities.
During the final stage of AD, the person is completely dependent upon caregivers. Language is reduced to simple phrases or even single words, eventually leading to complete loss of speech. Despite the loss of verbal language abilities, people can often understand and return emotional signals. Although aggressiveness can still be present, extreme apathy and exhaustion are much more common results. People with AD will ultimately not be able to perform even the simplest tasks without assistance. Muscle mass and mobility deteriorate to the point where they are bedridden, and they lose the ability to feed themselves. AD is a terminal illness, with the cause of death typically being an external factor, such as infection of pressure ulcers or pneumonia, not the disease itself.
Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease
Genetics: Most cases of Alzheimer’s disease do not exhibit autosomal-dominant inheritance and are termed sporadic AD, in which environmental and genetic differences may act as risk factors. The best known genetic risk factor is the inheritance of the ε4 allele of the apolipoprotein E (APOE). Between 40 and 80% of people with AD possess at least one APOEε4 allele. The APOEε4 allele increases the risk of the disease by three times in heterozygotes and by 15 times in homozygotes. Like many human diseases, environmental effects and genetic modifiers result in incomplete penetrance.
Amyloid hypothesis: In 1991, the amyloid hypothesis postulated that extracellular beta-amyloid (Aβ) deposits are the fundamental cause of the disease. Support for this postulate comes from the location of the gene for the amyloid precursor protein (APP) on chromosome 21, together with the fact that people with trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) who have an extra gene copy almost universally exhibit AD by 40 years of age. Also, a specific isoform of apolipoprotein, APOE4, is a major genetic risk factor for AD.
Cardiovascular Disease: Cardiovascular risk factors, such as hypercholesterolaemia, hypertension, diabetes, and smoking, are associated with a higher risk of onset and course of AD.
Smoking: Smoking is a significant AD risk factor.
Innate immune system: Systemic markers of the innate immune system are risk factors for late-onset AD.
Age: Advancing age is a primary risk factor for the disease and incidence rates are not equal for all ages: every five years after the age of 65, the risk of acquiring the disease approximately doubles, increasing from 3 to as much as 69 per thousand person years.
Sex: Women having a higher risk of developing AD particularly in the population older than 85.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is usually diagnosed clinically from the patient history, collateral history from relatives, and clinical observations, based on the presence of characteristic neurological and neuropsychological features and the absence of alternative conditions. Advanced medical imaging with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and with single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) or positron emission tomography (PET) can be used to help exclude other cerebral pathology or subtypes of dementia. Moreover, it may predict conversion from prodromal stages (mild cognitive impairment) to Alzheimer’s disease.
Assessment of intellectual functioning including memory testing can further characterise the state of the disease. Medical organisations have created diagnostic criteria to ease and standardise the diagnostic process for practicing physicians. The diagnosis can be confirmed with very high accuracy post-mortem when brain material is available and can be examined histologically.
The National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke (NINCDS) and the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association (ADRDA, now known as the Alzheimer’s Association) established the most commonly used NINCDS-ADRDA Alzheimer’s Criteria for diagnosis in 1984, extensively updated in 2007. These criteria require that the presence of cognitive impairment, and a suspected dementia syndrome, be confirmed by neuropsychological testing for a clinical diagnosis of possible or probable AD. A histopathologic confirmation including a microscopic examination of brain tissue is required for a definitive diagnosis. Good statistical reliability and validity have been shown between the diagnostic criteria and definitive histopathological confirmation. Eight cognitive domains are most commonly impaired in AD—memory, language, perceptual skills, attention, constructive abilities, orientation, problem solving and functional abilities. These domains are equivalent to the NINCDS-ADRDA Alzheimer’s Criteria as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Neuropsychological tests such as the mini–mental state examination (MMSE) are widely used to evaluate the cognitive impairments needed for diagnosis. More comprehensive test arrays are necessary for high reliability of results, particularly in the earliest stages of the disease. Neurological examination in early AD will usually provide normal results, except for obvious cognitive impairment, which may not differ from that resulting from other diseases processes, including other causes of dementia.
Further neurological examinations are crucial in the differential diagnosis of AD and other diseases. Interviews with family members are also utilised in the assessment of the disease. Caregivers can supply important information on the daily living abilities, as well as on the decrease, over time, of the person’s mental function. A caregiver’s viewpoint is particularly important, since a person with AD is commonly unaware of his own deficits. Many times, families also have difficulties in the detection of initial dementia symptoms and may not communicate accurate information to a physician.
Another recent objective marker of the disease is the analysis of cerebrospinal fluid for beta-amyloid or tau proteins, both total tau protein and phosphorylated tau181P protein concentrations. Searching for these proteins using a spinal tap can predict the onset of Alzheimer’s with a sensitivity of between 94% and 100%. When used in conjunction with existing neuroimaging techniques, doctors can identify people with significant memory loss who are already developing the disease. Spinal fluid tests are commercially available, unlike the latest neuroimaging technology. Alzheimer’s was diagnosed in one-third of the people who did not have any symptoms in a 2010 study, meaning that disease progression occurs well before symptoms occur.
Supplemental testing provides extra information on some features of the disease or is used to rule out other diagnoses. Blood tests can identify other causes for dementia than AD—causes which may, in rare cases, be reversible. It is common to perform thyroid function tests, assess B12, rule out syphilis, rule out metabolic problems (including tests for kidney function, electrolyte levels and for diabetes), assess levels of heavy metals (e.g. lead, mercury) and anaemia.
Psychological tests for depression are employed, since depression can either be concurrent with AD (see Depression of Alzheimer disease), an early sign of cognitive impairment, or even the cause.
Prevention from Alzheimer’s Disease
At present, there is no definitive evidence to support that any particular measure is effective in preventing AD. Global studies of measures to prevent or delay the onset of AD have often produced inconsistent results. However, epidemiological studies have proposed relationships between certain modifiable factors, such as diet, cardiovascular risk, pharmaceutical products, or intellectual activities among others, and a population’s likelihood of developing AD. Only further research, including clinical trials, will reveal whether these factors can help to prevent AD.
Although cardiovascular risk factors, such as hypercholesterolaemia, hypertension, diabetes, and smoking, are associated with a higher risk of onset and course of AD, statins, which are cholesterol lowering drugs, have not been effective in preventing or improving the course of the disease. The components of a Mediterranean diet, which include fruit and vegetables, bread, wheat and other cereals, olive oil, fish, and red wine, may all individually or together reduce the risk and course of Alzheimer’s disease. The diet’s beneficial cardiovascular effect has been proposed as the mechanism of action. There is limited evidence that light to moderate use of alcohol, particularly red wine, is associated with lower risk of AD.
Reviews on the use of vitamins have not found enough evidence of efficacy to recommend vitamin C, E, or folic acid with or without vitamin B12, as preventive or treatment agents in AD. Additionally vitamin E is associated with health risks. Trials examining folic acid (B9) and other B vitamins failed to show any significant association with cognitive decline. Docosahexaenoic acid, an Omega 3 fatty acid, has not been found to slow decline.
Long-term usage of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs) is associated with a reduced likelihood of developing AD. Human postmortem studies, in animal models, or in vitro investigations also support the notion that NSAIDs can reduce inflammation related to amyloid plaques. However trials investigating their use as palliative treatment have failed to show positive results while no prevention trial has been completed. Hormone replacement therapy, although previously used, may increase the risk of dementia.
Curcumin as of 2010 has not shown benefit in people even though there is tentative evidence in animals. There is inconsistent and unconvincing evidence that ginkgo has any positive effect on cognitive impairment and dementia, and a recent study concludes that it has no effect in reducing the rate of AD incidence. There is tentative evidence that caffeine may be protective. As of 2008 there is no concrete evidence that cannabinoids are effective in improving the symptoms of AD or dementia. Some research in its early stages however looks promising.
People who engage in intellectual activities such as reading, playing board games, completing crossword puzzles, playing musical instruments, or regular social interaction show a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. This is compatible with the cognitive reserve theory, which states that some life experiences result in more efficient neural functioning providing the individual a cognitive reserve that delays the onset of dementia manifestations. Education delays the onset of AD syndrome, but is not related to earlier death after diagnosis. Learning a second language even later in life seems to delay getting Alzheimer disease. Physical activity is also associated with a reduced risk of AD.
Some studies have shown an increased risk of developing AD with environmental factors such the intake of metals, particularly aluminium. The quality of some of these studies has been criticised, and other studies have concluded that there is no relationship between these environmental factors and the development of AD.
While some studies suggest that extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields may increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, reviewers found that further epidemiological and laboratory investigations of this hypothesis are needed. Smoking is a significant AD risk factor. Systemic markers of the innate immune system are risk factors for late-onset AD.
Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease; available treatments offer relatively small symptomatic benefit but remain palliative in nature. Current treatments can be divided into pharmaceutical, psychosocial and caregiving.
Five medications are currently used to treat the cognitive problems of AD: four are acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (tacrine, rivastigmine, galantamine and donepezil) and the other (memantine) is an NMDA receptor antagonist. The benefit from their use is small. No medication has been clearly shown to delay or halt the progression of the disease.
Reduction in the activity of the cholinergic neurons is a well-known feature of Alzheimer’s disease. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are employed to reduce the rate at which acetylcholine (ACh) is broken down, thereby increasing the concentration of ACh in the brain and combating the loss of ACh caused by the death of cholinergic neurons. There is evidence for the efficacy of these medications in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, and some evidence for their use in the advanced stage. Only donepezil is approved for treatment of advanced AD dementia. The use of these drugs in mild cognitive impairment has not shown any effect in a delay of the onset of AD. The most common side effects are nausea and vomiting, both of which are linked to cholinergic excess. These side effects arise in approximately 10–20% of users and are mild to moderate in severity. Less common secondary effects include muscle cramps, decreased heart rate (bradycardia), decreased appetite and weight, and increased gastric acid production.
Glutamate is a useful excitatory neurotransmitter of the nervous system, although excessive amounts in the brain can lead to cell death through a process called excitotoxicity which consists of the overstimulation of glutamate receptors.
Excitotoxicity occurs not only in Alzheimer’s disease, but also in other neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Memantine (brand names Akatinol) is a noncompetitive NMDA receptor antagonist first used as an anti-influenza agent. It acts on the glutamatergic system by blocking NMDA receptors and inhibiting their overstimulation by glutamate. Memantine has been shown to be moderately efficacious in the treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. Its effects in the initial stages of AD are unknown. Reported adverse events with memantine are infrequent and mild, including hallucinations, confusion, dizziness, headache and fatigue. The combination of memantine and donepezil has been shown to be “of statistically significant but clinically marginal effectiveness”.
Antipsychotic drugs are modestly useful in reducing aggression and psychosis in Alzheimer’s disease with behavioural problems, but are associated with serious adverse effects, such as cerebrovascular events, movement difficulties or cognitive decline, that do not permit their routine use. When used in the long-term, they have been shown to associate with increased mortality.
Huperzine A while promising, requires further evidence before it use can be recommended.
Psychosocial interventions are used as an adjunct to pharmaceutical treatment and can be classified within behaviour-, emotion-, cognition- or stimulation-oriented approaches. Research on efficacy is unavailable and rarely specific to AD, focusing instead on dementia in general.
Behavioural interventions attempt to identify and reduce the antecedents and consequences of problem behaviours. This approach has not shown success in improving overall functioning, but can help to reduce some specific problem behaviours, such as incontinence. There is a lack of high quality data on the effectiveness of these techniques in other behaviour problems such as wandering.
Emotion-oriented interventions include reminiscence therapy, validation therapy, supportive psychotherapy, sensory integration, also called snoezelen, and simulated presence therapy. Supportive psychotherapy has received little or no formal scientific study, but some clinicians find it useful in helping mildly impaired people adjust to their illness.
Reminiscence therapy (RT) involves the discussion of past experiences individually or in group, many times with the aid of photographs, household items, music and sound recordings, or other familiar items from the past. Although there are few quality studies on the effectiveness of RT, it may be beneficial for cognition and mood. Simulated presence therapy (SPT) is based on attachment theories and involves playing a recording with voices of the closest relatives of the person with Alzheimer’s disease. There is partial evidence indicating that SPT may reduce challenging behaviours. Finally, validation therapy is based on acceptance of the reality and personal truth of another’s experience, while sensory integration is based on exercises aimed to stimulate senses. There is no evidence to support the usefulness of these therapies.
The aim of cognition-oriented treatments, which include reality orientation and cognitive retraining, is the reduction of cognitive deficits. Reality orientation consists in the presentation of information about time, place or person in order to ease the understanding of the person about its surroundings and his or her place in them. On the other hand cognitive retraining tries to improve impaired capacities by exercitation of mental abilities. Both have shown some efficacy improving cognitive capacities, although in some studies these effects were transient and negative effects, such as frustration, have also been reported.
Stimulation-oriented treatments include art, music and pet therapies, exercise, and any other kind of recreational activities. Stimulation has modest support for improving behaviour, mood, and, to a lesser extent, function. Nevertheless, as important as these effects are, the main support for the use of stimulation therapies is the change in the person’s routine.
Since Alzheimer’s has no cure and it gradually renders people incapable of tending for their own needs, caregiving essentially is the treatment and must be carefully managed over the course of the disease.
During the early and moderate stages, modifications to the living environment and lifestyle can increase patient safety and reduce caretaker burden. Examples of such modifications are the adherence to simplified routines, the placing of safety locks, the labelling of household items to cue the person with the disease or the use of modified daily life objects. Patients may also become incapable of feeding themselves, so they require food in smaller pieces or pureed. When swallowing difficulties arise, the use of feeding tubes may be required. In such cases, the medical efficacy and ethics of continuing feeding is an important consideration of the caregivers and family members. The use of physical restraints is rarely indicated in any stage of the disease, although there are situations when they are necessary to prevent harm to the person with AD or their caregivers.
As the disease progresses, different medical issues can appear, such as oral and dental disease, pressure ulcers, malnutrition, hygiene problems, or respiratory, skin, or eye infections. Careful management can prevent them, while professional treatment is needed when they do arise. During the final stages of the disease, treatment is centred on relieving discomfort until death.
A small recent study in the US concluded that people whose caregivers had a realistic understanding of the prognosis and clinical complications of late dementia were less likely to receive aggressive treatment near the end of life.
There is strong evidence that feeding tubes do not help people with advanced Alzheimer’s dementia gain weight, regain strength or function, prevent aspiration pneumonias, or improve quality of life.