Alzheimer’s: First symptoms, new drug ‘breakthrough’ and how a urine test could detect disease

One in 14 people over the age of 65 will develop a form of dementia in the UK  (Peter Byrne/PA)
One in 14 people over the age of 65 will develop a form of dementia in the UK (Peter Byrne/PA)

Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that slowly destroys a person’s memory and reasoning skills over time, eventually hindering their ability to carry out simple tasks and negatively affecting their day-to-day lives.

It is estimated around one in three people born in the UK today will develop some form of dementia in their lifetime, with around 944,000 people currently living with the disease, according to Alzheimer’s Research UK.

This figure is set to rise even further, with more than one million people expected to suffer with dementia by 2030.

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, thought to make up between 50 and 70 per cent of cases.

What are the early signs of Alzheimer’s?

Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia, frequently involve problems in memory, thinking, and reasoning abilities, since the disease first affects the area of the brain connected to learning.

As the illness worsens, symptoms including confusion, behavioural problems, and other difficulties which increase in severity.

Having a sudden and abnormal sweet-food craving may occur in subjects with Alzheimer’s disease, with this change due to abnormalities in the brain’s serotonin levels.

Other early symptoms may include forgetting about recent conversations, names of places and objects, asking questions repetitively, showing poor judgement, and becoming less flexible and more hesitant in trying new things.

Who’s at risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

Age is the biggest known risk factor for the disease, with those aged over 65 doubling their risk factor.

An unhealthy lifestyle also increases a person’s risk, which includes being a smoker, being overweight, and alcohol abuse.

Health conditions increasing a person’s risk include having diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.

“The genes you inherit from your parents can contribute to your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, although the actual increase in risk is small,” adds the NHS.

Urine test to detect Alzheimer’s

A new study involving around 600 participants found a high level of formic acid present in their urine, indicating a potential early warning of the disease.

Formic acid is produced from formaldehyde, and high levels in the body can lead to harmful clumps of protein forming in the brain evident in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The research indicates a potential quicker, cheaper, and easier way of detecting the brain degenerative disease than traditional CT scans, with more research needed in the future.

“This is an exciting discovery as it offers a potential new way of detecting Alzheimer’s disease, that is less invasive and more cost-effective than current methods of diagnosing the disease,” said Sian Gregory, research information manager at the Alzheimer’s Society.

New drug Lecanemab offers hope

A drug has been found to slow cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s - with the Alzheimer’s Association hailing it a breakthrough that “can meaningfully change the course of the disease”.

The experimental drug - named Lecanemab - showed promising effects in a trial that involved nearly 1,800 patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s, although the drug only reduced the rate of cognitive decline by 27 per cent.

Lecanemab is an antibody therapy designed to remove sticky deposits of a protein called amyloid beta - which builds up around brain cells in Alzheimer’s patients, affecting the ability of the cells to transmit messages.

However, at the moment, Lecanemab is only likely to provide benefit if given early in the disease, before you’ve accumulated enough irreversible damage to cause symptoms.

The drug is under review and a decision will be made in January on whether or not to fast-track its development.