The effects of Alzheimer’s on the body

Aug 6, 2018 2 min
24 hour care

Most of us are aware of Alzheimer’s disease’s impact on the brain. But the brain cell damage characteristic of Alzheimer’s can also affect the rest of the body. Here are some of the physical symptoms often seen as Alzheimer’s progresses.

Confusion, forgetfulness and problems communicating – the effects of Alzheimer’s on the brain are well known. But the brain is in control of many body processes and problems with thinking can also affect general health and wellbeing. As the disease develops, Alzheimer’s can alter the way your loved one looks, moves and functions.

Impaired movement

Changes to the way you walk may be one of the early indicators of Alzheimer’s. The brain sends signals to the muscles that control movement. Brain cell damage can affect this process. People with Alzheimer’s tend to take shorter steps and drift to the side as they move. These changes may even be apparent before there is any noticeable mental decline. Gradually, as the disease develops, movement can become more impaired. Individuals may shuffle, walk slowly, drag their feet and generally slow down.

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Balance problems

Brain changes can affect spatial awareness. Your loved one may have difficulties judging distances, which can make them bump into furniture and struggle to safely negotiate stairs. There can also be difficulties with balance and coordination, making trips and falls are more common.

Shaking and stiffness

We associate shaking and muscle stiffness with Parkinson’s disease, but people with Alzheimer’s can also have muscular problems. The muscles can become rigid, making it difficult to move, and there can also be a noticeable tremor. Towards the end stages of the disease, the muscles can become tight, contracted and wasted, your loved one may need to be moved by a carer to stay comfortable and prevent pressure injuries.

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Weight loss

Decreased appetite, problems preparing food and struggles chewing or swallowing can make eating a healthy balanced diet challenging. You may notice significant weight loss, particularly in advanced disease.

Toilet troubles

An inadequate diet together with immobility can make people with Alzheimer’s prone to constipation. This is compounded by the natural weakening of the bowel muscles. Bad constipation can cause abdominal pain and also lead to soiling. In end-stage Alzheimer’s, control of the bowel is lost and incontinence is common.

Urinary infections are more common in the frail elderly and in people with dementia. Dehydration, poor mobility and problems with washing and going to the loo can exacerbate the problem. An infection can lead to increasing confusion, incontinence and abdominal pain. In advanced Alzheimer’s, bladder control is lost leading to continence problems.

Coughing and choking

In the late stages of the disease. The instinctive abilities to chew and swallow can be lost. The processes of breathing and swallowing require complex co-ordination. When this is compromised, food or fluids can be inhaled into the lungs, causing potentially dangerous aspiration pneumonia.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. In the early days, the symptoms can be subtle and easily managed. Later, they can affect every aspect of daily life. It’s impossible to prevent all physical problems, but by being aware of the potential pitfalls you can identify issues at an early stage, so that you can work with health professionals and carers to ensure your loved one continues to live a life that is as happy, safe and healthy as possible.

Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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