Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. The disease affects the brain, leading to memory loss; impaired motor skills; language; and changes in mood, with many elderly patients losing their independence as a result.
“The effects of Alzheimer’s are devastating in South Africa because there is little support for patients and their families,” says specialist geriatrician at Akeso Clinic in Parktown, Dr Ryan Fuller. “Because our healthcare system is not designed with senior citizens in mind, caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can be lonely and relentless. For many, the distress of watching a loved one succumb to the disease can feel overwhelming.”
Dr Fuller says the risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years of age from the age of 65. While five in every 100 people over the age of 65 develop the disease, by the time they reach 80 years old, approximately more than half of elderly folk will have developed a dementia syndrome.
The causes of the Alzheimer’s are not yet well understood. Genetic as well as environmental factors, such as an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise and cognitive stimulation, other physical illness such as high blood pressure and diabetes and the general aging process are thought to play a role. Early symptoms include memory loss, which over time becomes persistent and pervasive – affecting the person’s ability to complete simple day-to-day tasks.
“The first signs may be asking repetitive questions, difficulty with finances, forgetting the names of friends and family and getting lost while driving a regular route home. In the more advanced stages of the disease, patients may experience mood swings, aggressive outbursts, or even display psychotic behaviour.”
He adds that one of the major challenges in treating Alzheimer’s is the fragmented approach to healthcare for senior citizens. Overcoming this is why Dr Fuller is pioneering a memory care team-based approach to treating patients with Alzheimer’s. The treatment philosophy is based on tackling all aspects of the disease – the physical, psychological and social.
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