If you are worried that someone close to you may have Alzheimer's disease (AD), discuss your concerns with your general practitioner (GP). Drugs which help some of the symptoms of this debilitating condition are available.
AD causes a progressive deterioration in memory, thinking and behaviour (dementia). In the early stages, it may cause memory lapses, difficulty finding the right word, repeating questions and social withdrawal.
As the disease progresses, people may become confused, have trouble with simple daily activities and experience mood swings. Eventually sufferers are unable to care for themselves.
The risk of AD increases with age, occurring in 5% of those over 65 years and 20% of those over 80 years. There are many other causes of dementia, but AD causes about 60% of cases.
Is it ageing or Alzheimer's?
Many people worry that they may have AD, particularly if their memory is getting worse with age. However, memory loss from AD progresses more rapidly than normal forgetfulness. It becomes more severe and interferes with activities of daily life.
Loss of memory can also be a symptom of stress or medical conditions such as depression, stroke and alcoholism.
Discuss your concerns with your GP. You may need a review of your medical history and a physical examination. You may also be asked a series of questions to test your thinking and memory. Finally, blood tests and a brain scan are required in some cases.
What is the role of medication?
Medication cannot cure AD but can slow its progression in some patients. There are two main types of medication, both of which may improve mental function and behaviour problems.
In 2003 memantine was released in Australia and is the only drug available for moderately severe to severe Alzheimer's disease. Side effects may include dizziness, headache and tiredness. Memantine is available on a private script.
'Cholinesterase inhibitors' (donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine) are used in mild to moderate AD and are subsidised on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). They may cause nausea and diarrhoea which is usually temporary.
For further information, speak to your doctor, ring the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 or visit the Alzheimer's Australia website, at http://www.alzheimers.org.au/.
Please note this information was correct at time of printing.
For up to date information, speak to your doctor.