- One such poorly understood but significant mental illness in Tanzania is ‘Alzheimer’s disease’. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour.
Most psychiatric conditions are not taken very seriously in Tanzania. In many cases, different types of mental illnesses are generalised as mental retardation as most of us are unaware of specific mental conditions.
One such poorly understood but significant mental illness in Tanzania is ‘Alzheimer’s disease’. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour.
Dementia is a general term for memory loss and other mental function disruptions. Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disease whose symptoms develop gradually and get worse over time. They usually become severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.
Causes of Alzheimer’s disease are not well understood although the greatest risk factor is ageing.
Other risk factors include genetics, head trauma, hypertension and depression. Most Alzheimer’s patients are 65 and above. In 5 per cent of cases, the onset occurs earlier in life in their 40s or 50s. The annual mortality rate per 100,000 people due to Alzheimer’s and other dementias in Tanzania has increased by around 52 per cent since 1990. In 2013, the mortality rate due to Alzheimer’s among men in Tanzania was 791 per 100,000 men compared to 640 per 100,000 in women.
In its early stage, memory loss is mild; patients forget names of family or friends and there exists some confusion in new situations. Alzheimer’s starts by affecting the part of the brain that controls learning and so; the most common early symptom is difficulty remembering new information or short term memory loss.
In the middle stage, patients have problems sleeping, have greater difficulty remembering newly learned information and are disoriented but during its late stage, patients cannot communicate effectively, cannot respond to their surroundings, cannot think properly and are more abusive and anxious.
As it advances, the person often withdraws from family and the society. Gradually, body functions are lost, which eventually leads to death.
Is it curable?
Alzheimer’s patients live around 8 years on average after their symptoms become noticeable but the general survival period ranges from 4-20 years depending on age and other health conditions.
Currently Alzheimer’s doesn’t have any cure, but is symptomatically treated. There are drugs which can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve the patients’ quality of life.
The author is a medical student at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences