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A misunderstood disease

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Dr. Vihan Sanyal demystifies Alzheimer’s

Four million people in India suffer from Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia. Of these, 70% are women.

Are dementia and Alzheimer’s the same disease?

Dementia is not a disease, it is more like a cluster of symptoms, known as a syndrome. Many degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease fall under the broader term of dementia. Dementia occurs usually with advanced age. Alzheimer’s is possibly the most common form of dementia. We can account for about 50% to 70% of all cases of dementia to Alzheimer’s.

What Alzheimer's does to the body

Most people associate Alzheimer's disease to loss of memory; however, both the physical and mental condition of a person is affected by Alzheimer’s disease. It can change the way a person walks and talks. It’s important to be aware of the changes which can take place as the disease progresses. This will ensure that both the patient and the caregivers will be better prepared to deal with the changes.

The brain and body connection

The exact cause of Alzheimer’s is not known. Most doctors feel that the symptoms of the disease are caused by an increase of harmful proteins called ‘amyloids’ in a person’s brain. These proteins disturb the way our brain functions and start to kill healthy brain cells. The damage is of a permanent and irreversible nature.

The portion of our brain which forms memories is the first to be affected by the disease. During this early-stage of Alzheimer’s, people typically have trouble remembering things. As the disease spreads to other areas of the brain, a person’s physical and mental health begins to deteriorate.

The lifespan of a person after the onset of the disease differs from person-to-person. Some people with the disease live up to 20 years, while the expected average lifespan is between eight to 10 years.

How the body stops supporting a person

As the body begins to deteriorate, it raises the risk for other health problems like:

Becoming more susceptible to Infections as the immune system begins to fail.

Pneumonia can easily set in.

Injuries and fractures from falls are likely to happen.

People with Alzheimer's disease typically die from pneumonia, by contracting another infection, or from a heart attack.

How the body stops supporting a person

The symptoms and changes person experiences are different for everyone. For some people, physical changes may begin before cognitive derangement.

A few of the changes one can expect are

Muscle stiffness

Loss of balance or coordination

Feet that drag while walking

Disturbance in sleeping patterns

Loss of control over bladder and bowel movements

Random and uncontrollable muscle twitches

Trouble sitting in a chair

Weakness and fatigue


1. Alzheimer’s does not only happen to the elderly.

In most cases people above the age of 65 are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. However, it is not uncommon to find signs of the disease in people who are in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. This is termed early-onset Alzheimer’s. Early onset Alzheimer’s can have a genetic component and mostly remains undiagnosed in a majority of cases as memory loss can be attributed to many other issues, including stress.

2. Alzheimer’s symptoms are not a normal part of aging.

Some forgetfulness is a normal part of the aging process. It becomes a problem when people begin to experience worsening of the condition. It is normal for a person to forget where they have kept their reading glasses for instance, but, it is not normal for them to forget that they ever required reading glasses.

3. Alzheimer’s leads to death

As the mind and body start to shut down over a span of time, the expected lifespan of a person who is diagnosed with the disease reduces to an average of 8-10 years after the diagnosis. People often contract viral infections resulting in pneumonia and death.

4. There are currently no known treatments which can stop the disease from getting worse

All the treatment options available at present for Alzheimer’s help to temporarily provide symptomatic relief. There is no known cure or of stopping the disease.

5. Alzheimer’s is not caused by aluminium, flu shots or with silver fillings.

Cooking with aluminium pans, taking vaccination shots and getting silver fillings on teeth do not cause Alzheimer’s.

In fact, experts are unsure of the cause of the disease. It might be a mix of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. A few studies suggest the role of health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes as the cause of Alzheimer’s. However, all the outcomes of the research still remain inconclusive.

Dr Vihan Sanyal is a psychotherapist and a public speaker. He has introduced the approach of  MNLP –Mindfulness Neuro Linguistic Programming

(To be continued: Challenges faced by carers)

Short Takes

Most people associate Alzheimer's disease to loss of memory; however, both the physical and mental condition of a person is affected by it.

Cooking with aluminium pans, taking vaccination shots and getting silver fillings on teeth do not cause Alzheimer’s. However, outcomes of research of various causes remain inconclusive.

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