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Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia, which gradually damages your brain. It can affect your memory, your ability to communicate and to make decisions. It can also affect your ability to do everyday activities, such as shopping, getting dressed or preparing a meal. The condition usually develops slowly, over many years.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting about 500,000 people in the UK. About six in every 100 people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. It's more common in women.

Alzheimer’s disease causes small lumps of protein to form in your brain, which are sometimes called tangles and plaques. It also causes nerve cells and areas of your brain to die.

The disease alters the levels of chemicals that are responsible for transmitting signals between your brain cells. This means that nerve messages aren't passed on properly. Over time, as more and more areas of your brain become damaged, your symptoms will get worse.

Alzheimer’s disease is more common in older people. Sometimes, people under 65 can get early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, although this is much less common.

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Early signs of dementia
Professor Graham Stokes


  • Symptoms Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

    One of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is being forgetful. For example, you may forget the name of someone you know, where you have put something, or an appointment. You might also have trouble finding the right words when talking or writing.

    As your Alzheimer’s disease develops, you may get some of the symptoms listed below.

    • You may feel confused or disorientated – for example, you may not know what time of day it is or where you are.
    • You may feel irritable, become less interested in life, or become depressed or unsettled.
    • You may have problems doing everyday tasks, such as following a recipe, shopping or managing your money.
    • You may take less care of yourself, for example, not washing regularly or eating properly.
    • Communicating may become more difficult. You may struggle to understand all of what is being said to you or all of what you read.
    • You may become impulsive or angry, meaning you might do or say things you previously wouldn't have.

    These symptoms aren't always caused by Alzheimer’s disease. For example, forgetfulness can be a sign of another medical problem, of getting older or of stress. If you start to notice these symptoms, see your GP. You may be able to get treatment if another medical problem is causing your symptoms.

    Getting early treatment of Alzheimer’s disease can also help to slow down the symptoms. Getting a diagnosis early means you can plan ahead and decide how you’d like to be cared for in the future.

  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease

    Alzheimer’s disease can be difficult to diagnose, especially when it first starts. It may take a number of appointments and several months before you get a diagnosis.

    Your GP may ask you questions to test your memory and thinking. They may use a test called the Mini-Mental State Examination. He or she may also give you a physical examination and ask you to have a urine test or blood test. This is to check whether something else is causing your symptoms.

    If your GP thinks that you may have Alzheimer’s disease, he or she is likely to refer you to a Memory Assessment Service. There, you’ll see specialist doctors and nurses for more tests to check your memory and thinking, and to look at your behaviour. The tests will help them understand how your symptoms have progressed. You may be asked to have a brain scan, such as a CT or MRI. A CT scan will use X-rays to make a three-dimensional image of your brain. An MRI scan will use magnets and radio waves to produce images of your brain.

  • Treatment Treatment options for Alzheimer's disease

    The effects of Alzheimer’s disease are not reversible, so it can’t be cured. Some treatments can slow down its progress for a time though.


    People with Alzheimer’s disease don’t have enough of a chemical called acetylcholine in their brain. Acetylcholine helps signals to travel between brain cells. Medicines called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors can help to stop the amount of acetylcholine in your brain getting lower.

    There are three acetylcholinesterase inhibitors available: donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine. If your Alzheimer’s disease is mild or moderate, one of these drugs may slow down the development of your symptoms. Over a few months, they may improve your memory, alertness, motivation, mood and ability to do things like shopping. They don’t work for everyone.

    If you have severe Alzheimer’s disease, a different medicine called memantine may help. This works by reducing the amount of glutamate in your brain, which tends to be too high in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Memantine may improve your memory and reduce any changes in your behaviour.

    If you also have depression, your doctor may offer you antidepressants to treat it.

    our doctor will discuss the best treatment options with you and explain the risks and benefits they can have. He or she can help you make a decision about which medicines you’d like to take.

    Some people with Alzheimer’s have occasional periods where they can get hallucinations (hearing, seeing or smelling things that aren't there). They might also be upset or aggressive. If this happens to you, you may be offered an antipsychotic medicine or be given a sedative to help you relax.

    Some people are interested to know whether vitamin E or a herbal remedy called ginkgo biloba can help to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Studies haven’t found any proof that this is true.

    Talking therapies

    Your doctor may suggest different types of therapy or activity. These may help you cope with your memory loss and the psychological effects of Alzheimer’s disease, such as depression and feeling unsettled.

    Some of the main therapies are listed below.

    • Counselling. Counselling sessions are usually carried out in groups. Some small research studies suggest that this may be helpful for reducing depression in people with mild dementia. Speak to your GP or doctor to find out what’s available in your local area.
    • Cognitive stimulation therapy. This uses activities that need some thought and reasoning, and can be enjoyable. People with mild to moderate dementia may find this beneficial. Some studies have shown that this type of therapy may help to improve quality of life.
    • Multisensory stimulation. This gets your different senses working (sight, hearing, smell and touch), for example through light displays, sounds, fragrances and hand massage. This may have a positive effect on behaviour and mood. Some studies suggest it may be helpful for people with advanced dementia.

    Other activities

    You may find that some activities help to improve some symptoms and your daily life. Some of the main ones include:

    • listening to music
    • having contact with pets and other animals
    • aromatherapy – using plant extracts and oils to help you relax
    • massage
    • remembering your past (reminiscence therapy)
    • activities such as dance, cooking, art and craft
    • exercising
    • having conversations
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  • Causes Causes of Alzheimer's disease

    Some factors may make you more likely to get the condition, including:

    • getting older
    • you may be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease if a close relative has it, although the inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease is rare
    • a past head injury
    • lifestyle factors, such as smoking
    • a diet high in saturated fat
    • having diabetes
    • having high blood pressure or high cholesterol
    • having Down’s syndrome

    You may hear that Alzheimer’s disease can be caused by aluminum. Looking at all the scientific studies investigating this, there isn't any proof that this is true.

  • Help and support Help and support

    Alzheimer’s disease can cause a great deal of distress and upset for you and your family. When you’re diagnosed, your doctor will let you know what help and support is available. Together, you’ll plan your care.

    Many people with Alzheimer’s disease live for years with the condition. As time passes you may be looked after at home or in a care home. This may change over time to suit your needs. The people who care for you can help you to look after yourself and stay healthy and safe.

    Top tips for dementia caregivers by Bupa UKIf you’re looking after someone with Alzheimer’s disease at home, you’re likely to need extra help and support. Looking after someone with dementia can be stressful and you may find it harder to look after your own health and wellbeing. You may be able to get advice so you can learn how best to help the person with Alzheimer’s disease. You may also be able to see a psychologist if it would help you.

    If you’re caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, take regular breaks to look after yourself and relax. You may be able to have respite care, so you can have some time to yourself. This is when someone comes into your home to spend time with the person with dementia. Alternatively, the person with dementia may attend a day centre, or spend a few days in a care home. Respite care can include help during the night.

    Organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society and Carers UK can give you more information about respite care.

    The infographic provides some top tips for dementia caregivers. Click on the image to open it as a full-size PDF.
  • Alzheimer's disease and risk-awareness Risk-awareness

    There’s no proven way you can stop yourself getting Alzheimer’s disease, but researchers believe some things might help reduce your risk. There’s not enough proof to know for sure. These may include:

    • using your mind (for example through reading and games)
    • leading a healthy lifestyle (for example exercising, eating a healthy diet that includes oily fish, not smoking and keeping a healthy weight)
  • FAQs FAQs

    I've been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Does this mean I'll develop Alzheimer's disease?


    A diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment doesn't mean that you’ll necessarily develop Alzheimer’s disease. You'll be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than someone without cognitive impairment.


    If you have mild cognitive impairment, you’ll have some problems with memory and attention but this won’t dramatically affect your everyday life. Problems will be slightly greater than you would expect with normal ageing.

    Up to half of people with mild cognitive impairment go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease, but not all do. It can be difficult for doctors to tell the difference between mild cognitive impairment, normal ageing, and the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

    Talk to your GP if you’re worried about mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

    How can I help a relative who is scared to admit they might have Alzheimer’s disease?


    If your relative is showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, encourage them to see their GP. It may help to calmly explain the changes you’ve noticed. Explain that early treatment can slow down the speed that Alzheimer’s disease progresses. Remember that your relative might not have Alzheimer’s disease.


    It might take a year or more for your relative to notice the possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not uncommon for friends, partners or colleagues to be the first to notice a change. If your relative is showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, encourage them to see their GP.

    It may help to calmly and sensitively explain the changes you’ve noticed in your relative’s memory, ability to think or behaviour. It can be easy to put the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease down to other causes, such as ageing or the side-effects of medicines. Sometimes, people don’t realise their memory is getting worse and their behaviour is changing. This is because they may have become used to working around it or they may be less aware of themselves.

    It may help to explain that ruling out Alzheimer’s disease is important. If your relative does have Alzheimer’s disease, it is best they’re diagnosed early for the reasons below.

    • Treatments can help to slow the speed at which their symptoms worsen. 
    • Treatments can allow people to have a better quality of life and live at home for longer. 
    • An earlier diagnosis means that your relative, you and others in the family have more time to learn about the condition and plan ahead. 
    • Your relative can choose how they wish to be cared for if their condition worsens. They might not be capable of making these decisions once their symptoms worsen.

    Ask if your relative would be happy to have you or another relative go along to their appointment. This is so that you can provide support and explain the changes you’ve noticed. You may want to ask for more information to take away after the appointment.

    Remember, your relative might not have Alzheimer’s disease. If tests rule out Alzheimer’s disease this may give all of you reassurance. Tests may also help to pinpoint a different cause of their symptoms.

    How will my Alzheimer’s disease affect me as it gets worse?


    How quickly Alzheimer’s disease progresses differs from person to person. Eventually, you’ll find it harder to understand the world you live in, to interact with others and to care for yourself. You may want to plan ahead for this time, so you can choose how you’d like to be cared for.


    On average, people live for eight to 10 years with Alzheimer’s disease. How quickly the condition gets worse differs from person to person. As your Alzheimer’s disease progresses, you’ll find it harder to interact with other people and to do everyday activities. Your memory loss will get worse, and you might not recognise your close family or common objects.

    You may have good and bad days, and your symptoms may change over time. At some points, you may seem distressed or show strange behaviours.

    Eventually, you’ll become much less able to understand the world you live in. You may become withdrawn, speak less and be unable to control your bladder or bowel. You’re likely to need other people to care for you. They’ll help you to eat and drink, wash and dress, and will keep you safe.

    You may want to make decisions about how you want to be cared for when your health gets worse. You can give someone else Power of Attorney. This means they can make decisions about your healthcare, legal affairs and finances when you’re no longer able to do this for yourself. You may be unable to make sense of handling money in the future, so planning for this is important.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Mental Health Foundation The Mental Health Foundation is a charity that carries out research and offers information about many areas of mental health. This page gives an overview of dementia in general, including advice for people caring for someone with the condition.

    Alzheimer’s Society

    Alzheimer’s Society has an online forum called Talking Point which is for anyone who is affected by dementia. You’ll need to register but it’s free and once you’ve done so you can read and join in the discussions. These cover wide-ranging issues, including equipment and technology for people with dementia, legal and financial advice and end of life care.

      Although it’s called Alzheimer’s Society, this organisation has information and resources covering all types and aspects of dementia. In this article you’ll find links to further information about dementia and how it progresses. There’s also a short video about how the brain is affected in dementia.
      If you’re caring for someone with dementia, it’s important that you get the support and information that you need. Among other things, this article links to tips on practical, everyday care and offers advice on making sure you’re looking after yourself as well as your loved one.
     Mind The charity Mind has information to support people with a mental health condition and those who care for them. The content here covers some challenges that carers face, things you can do to help yourself manage, and where to go for help and support.


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    • Map of Medicine. Dementia. International View. London: Map of Medicine; 2014 (Issue 3) 
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    • van Weert JC,, van Dulmen AM,, Spreeuwenberg PM, et al. Behavioral and mood effects of snoezelen integrated into 24-hour dementia care. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2005; 53(1):24–33. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2005.53006.x  
    • Organic illness. Oxford handbook of psychiatry (online). Oxford Medicine Online., published March 2013
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    Reviewed by Hemali Bedi, Bupa Health Content Team, June 2015.

    Peer reviewed by Professor Graham Stokes.

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