28 April 2006 - written by Kate Nichols for Bupa's health information team
Elderly people who see friends and family regularly may protect themselves from the effects of Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published online this month by The Lancet. The study was the first to examine the relationship between social networks and brain changes that happen as a result of Alzheimer's disease.
How was the study carried out?
Researchers in Chicago studied 89 elderly people. Every year, each participant was clinically examined and given a number of cognitive-performance tests. These tests were designed to see how their minds were functioning.
In addition, participants were asked questions about their social network. They were asked how many children, close friends and relatives they had, and how often they saw them each month.
When the participants died, their brains were closely examined to reveal any physical signs of Alzheimer's disease.
What did the study show?
The study showed that the size of a person's social network was an important factor in how well their mind functioned, even if they had the physical signs of Alzheimer's disease. In other words, seeing close family and friends on a regular basis appeared to keep their minds healthier, despite the disease being physically present in some of their brains. The researchers explained that social-network sizes appear to offer a kind of protective effect against the disease.
The study also revealed that this protective effect was particularly good at looking after semantic memory - the part of the brain associated with knowledge and language.
The researchers concluded that the findings were an important step towards preventing the disease, since healthy and frequent interactions with friends and family may have a positive effect on the way people ward off the damaging effects of the disease.
What is Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It results in loss of memory, reduced language skills and behavioural and emotional problems. Most cases develop later in life. The condition attacks the cells, nerves and transmitters in the brain, and a shortage of chemicals in the brain affects the way messages are communicated within it. Other explanations of Alzheimer's disease focus on areas of abnormal protein in the brain called "plaques" and "tangles", the names reflecting what these abnormalities in the brain look like under the microscope.
How many people have Alzheimer's disease in the UK?
The Alzheimer's Society estimates that more than 750,000 people in the UK are affected by Alzheimer's disease. Around 1 in 20 people above the age of 65 have the disease. For people over the age of 80, that figure rises to around 1 in 5.
Are men and women equally affected?
There is no strong evidence that Alzheimer's disease affects more men than woman, or vice-versa. The disease appears to hold no social, cultural or geographic boundaries.
What causes Alzheimer's disease?
Apart from the increased chance of developing the disease later in life, there is no single factor that is thought to trigger the disease. A combination of factors is often involved. People with high blood pressure and cholesterol seem to have an increased chance of developing the disease, and there is some evidence that Alzheimer's disease runs in families, but many medical experts dispute this. People with Down's syndrome are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease in middle age.
What are the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?
People in the early stages of the disease often have difficulty in remembering things, doing simple calculations or finding the right words. As the disease develops, sufferers can become more confused - often forgetting people's names, appointments and recent events. Mood swings are common, as are feelings of anger, frustration, fear and anxiety.
As the condition worsens, sufferers can become severely disorientated and confused. They may also experience hallucinations and paranoid delusions. Increased feelings of suspicion, and even violence, are not uncommon. People in the later stages of the disease are likely to need close care and help with their daily activities.
How is it diagnosed?
There's no definitive test that can diagnose Alzheimer's disease during your lifetime. The diagnosis of the disease involves distinguishing it from other forms of dementia. According to the Alzheimer's Society around 55% of cases of dementia are due to Alzheimer's disease.
If you feel confused or are having problems with your memory, the first step is to see your GP. You'll be asked questions about your medical history and you may have to provide a blood or urine sample. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist - a neurologist, a geriatrician or a psychiatrist. Your doctor may give you a mini-mental state examination (MMSE), which is a series of questions that test your memory, your understanding and you ability to do simple tasks. The specialist may also carry out an MRI scan or a CT scan to check for a tumour or stroke.
How is Alzheimer's disease treated?
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease. Treatment is based on reducing the symptoms of the disease. Recent research has also focused on the benefits of anti-oxidants, brain-stem cell therapy and even vaccinations that stop the build up of protein in the brain associated with the disease.
Mood-controlling drugs (tranquillisers) and other forms of medication can be prescribed to help with sleep and behaviour problems. Alternative treatments like music therapy and aromatherapy are sometimes encouraged.
Can physical and mental exercise reduce the risk of developing dementia?
Keeping physically healthy helps to protect against many conditions, including dementia. Regular activity, such as a daily 30-minute walk, helps to keep the heart and vascular system healthy.
Prior to the findings in the present study, research has long suggested that people with a wide circle of friends and a variety of interests may reduce their risk of developing dementia. Mentally challenging activities like puzzles, crosswords and quizzes may also help.
Can you summarise the best ways to avoid getting dementia?
The Alzheimer's Society's advice for reducing the risk of developing dementia is listed below.
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