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Alzheimer’s disease:
causes, symptoms and diagnosis

Alzheimer’s disease is a severe form of dementia that cannot be cured. Medication can, however, help to improve the course of the condition.


Alzheimer’s disease is a disease of the brain that results in memory impairment, confusion and disorientation. These symptoms are caused by the death of nerve cells – a process that is irreversible and incurable. Older people are particularly affected, and about two-thirds of sufferers are women.

People with Alzheimer’s show signs of progressive dementia. But not everyone with dementia also suffers from Alzheimer’s. The umbrella term dementia also encompasses other diseases in which the cognitive abilities decline. The organisation Alzheimer’s Switzerland estimates that there are around 150,000 people with dementia in Switzerland. It is assumed that some 60% of them suffer from Alzheimer’s, which would be about 90,000 people.

Alzheimer’s develops when the nerve fibres and the connection points between the nerve cells are attacked in the brain. These connecting points (synapses) ensure that nerve cells are either in contact with each other or that there is “radio silence” between them. In Alzheimer’s patients, plaques accumulate in the brain at the synapses and other places – these are harmful protein compounds that lead to the death of nerve cells.

People with family members affected by Alzheimer’s often worry a lot about inheriting the disease. Researchers have identified three genes involved in the inheritance of Alzheimer’s disease, but it is rare for Alzheimer’s to actually be inherited. This is not the case for 99 out of 100 patients.

As with many other diseases, the symptoms and course of Alzheimer’s disease depend on the stage of the disease. The following is typical:

Early-stage Alzheimer’s:

  • Short-term memory problems
  • Slower thinking or speaking
  • Decreasing orientation (place, time)
  • Disturbed attention
  • Decreasing activity and motivation
  • Depressed moods

Middle-stage Alzheimer’s:

  • Impaired long-term memory
  • Problems with reading, speaking and arithmetic
  • Aggression
  • Loss of the sense of reality (e.g. delusions)

Late-stage Alzheimer’s:

  • Inability to recognise relatives
  • Loss of control, incontinence
  • Physical decay
  • Bedridden, requiring care

In the early stages, Alzheimer’s symptoms appear gradually. The disease process usually accelerates in the middle phase and then slows down again at the end. Statistically, the average life expectancy of Alzheimer’s patients is eight to ten years from first diagnosis, but there are also patients who live with the disease for 20 years.

Alzheimer’s can be prevented by reducing the risk of developing this form of dementia. The more the following tips are observed, the more effective prevention is:

  • Healthy nutrition (fruit, vegetables, little meat)
  • Sufficient exercise
  • Mental training
  • Avoiding smoking
  • No alcohol consumption
  • Sufficient sleep
An Alzheimer’s study found that a healthy lifestyle allowed 65-year-old women to live dementia-free for an average of 21.6 years, compared with 17 dementia-free years for women who had unhealthy lifestyles. The difference was even greater for 65-year-old men (21.7 versus 15.3 years).

Two tests for the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease have recently been developed. The PrecivityAD blood test from the USA detects the presence of plaques in the brain by determining the ratio of certain proteins to each other (amyloid beta 40 and 42). The blood test also looks for a genetic risk factor (ApoE4). A test developed at the German Ruhr-Universität Bochum also looks for biomarkers in order to detect Alzheimer’s at an early stage. Both blood tests are still awaiting market approval in Europe.

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are associated with a lack of the messenger substance acetylcholine in the brain. Medicines can block an enzyme that is responsible for breaking down acetylcholine. These drugs (cholinesterase inhibitors) are intended to stabilise brain function and delay the course of the disease. Another active substance to treat Alzheimer’s disease is memantine, which is thought to inhibit the overstimulation of certain receptors in the brain.

Hopes are turning to new types of active substances, none of which have yet been approved here. The available data is also still poor.

Even if Alzheimer’s is incurable, the quality of life of those affected is mostly good, according to a German survey – regardless of whether patients are cared for at home or in a nursing home. The burden of Alzheimer’s is particularly great in the initial phase, when patients begin to notice a decline in their abilities. Later on, it is often the relatives who find it increasingly difficult. The organisation Alzheimer’s Switzerland offers a variety of assistance services for patients and their relatives in Switzerland – over the phone (058 058 80 00) and on the Internet (

For more information and support services, please contact Alzheimer’s Switzerland:

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  • Alzheimer Schweiz, unter: (Abrufdatum: 13.11.2022)
  • Bundesamt für Gesundheit, unter: (Abrufdatum: 13.11.2022)
  • Alzheimer Forschung, unter: (Abrufdatum: 13.11.2022)
  • Neurologen und Psychiater im Netz, unter: (Abrufdatum: 13.11.2022)
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Neurologie, unter: (Abrufdatum: 13.11.2022)
  • Forschung und Wissen, unter: (Abrufdatum: 13.11.2022)
  • Neurologen und Psychiater im Netz, unter: (Abrufdatum: 13.11.2022)