Understanding Alzheimer's Disease

An estimated 4-5 million Americans now suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and by 2050 that number is expected to quadruple. The cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s is in the billions and expected to increase to trillions in the next 40 years. While your risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases with age, it is not a normal part of the aging process. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that leads to memory loss. In the later stages, Alzheimer’s disease can seriously interfere with the individual’s ability function. Though commonly associated with growing older, Alzheimer’s can affect people in their 40s or 50s. Alzheimer’s progresses from early symptoms of mild memory loss to the point it becomes difficult, if not impossible to carry on conversations or interact with others. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s at this time, though ongoing research is helping find ways to slow the progression of the disease. Early recognition and treatment is the key to effectively treating early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.  

Alzheimer’s disease leads to progressive brain loss with diminishing memory and function. Not all memory loss is Alzheimer’s and it is important to understand, recognize, and know the warning signs of Alzheimer’s. While everyone normally has problems finding where they put things such as reading glasses or car keys on occasion, an early sign of Alzheimer’s is the frequency that this happens. If memory loss constantly disrupts daily activities or other changes such as problems in completing daily tasks, withdrawal from family, friends, and social activities, changes in mood or personality occur, have your loved one evaluated. Alzheimer’s does not necessarily cause all these symptoms, but a full evaluation will rule out other possible causes.

 Diagnosing Alzheimer’s cannot be done only based on symptoms. Other causes such as underlying medical conditions or medications could present similar symptoms. New tests may soon make it possible to predict Alzheimer’s years before symptoms become obvious. Exciting new research links retinal plaque deposits with Alzheimer’s. This discovery may lead to an early diagnostic tool in the near future. Until these new tests are readily available, diagnosing Alzheimer’s involves a complete medical evaluation that includes a family history. There is some indication that Alzheimer’s may have a genetic factor involved as well as environmental and even dietary influences. Neurological and psychological exams including tests of cognitive abilities and mental status will determine the level of dementia. Blood tests, as well as brain imaging help to rule out other causes for the mental changes that are also sometimes associated with stroke or other disease processes.

There are three progressive stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The affect the disease has on an individual’s mind and body may vary widely based on these stages. To follow the progression of the disease more closely, your doctor may use a seven-stage model to help plan appropriate care and intervention. In early stages of Alzheimer’s, frequent memory loss of current conversations or events may occur. Occasional difficulty in writing or using words, mood swings, and depression often progress as the symptoms become troubling. The individual may find ways to cover up or explain memory lapses to avoid worrying family members. They may cover up difficulties by joking or simply withdrawing from situations where others may notice. In the middle stage, it becomes difficult if not impossible to hide or cover up problems. During this stage, the individual struggling with Alzheimer’s forgets personal history, and may begin to have trouble recognizing family and friends. The ability to remember may be fleeting at this stage and lead to further confusion. Mood swings, personality changes, aggression, and irritability become more frequent. During the second stage, mobility and coordination problems limit self-care and the individual requires assistance to perform daily self-care tasks. As the disease progresses to the stage three, round-the-clock care is needed as the physical limitations become severe. Caregivers need to keep safety in mind for themselves as well as the family member who has Alzheimer’s. During the late stages of this disease, individuals are often unable to swallow, and have problems with controlling their bowel movements. Falls are a high risk due to decreased mobility. Safety must be a top priority. The round-the-clock observation and care needed at this point may lead to a need to place the individual in a special care home.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment for individuals with Alzheimer’s involves safety and support measures. Early treatment with medications may help to slow the progression of the disease. The two drugs currently approved for treating early Alzheimer’s symptoms are cholinesterase inhibitors and a drug called Memantine. These medications work to enhance cellular communication in the brain and may delay memory loss if used during the early stage of the disease. Other treatment options include safety issues within the environment and helping the individual adapt to their diminishing abilities as much as possible. Behavioral therapy may help with depression, or aggression. It is important to encourage daily exercise and good nutrition as long as possible. As the disease progresses it becomes harder to maintain proper nutrition as the person with Alzheimer’s may have difficulty chewing or swallowing food. By offering high calorie shakes or smoothies, you can help maintain nutritional needs and decrease the risk of dehydration common with those who have Alzheimer’s. You may find a number of herbs and supplements that may be helpful in treating Alzheimer’s. However, do not add any new supplements or herbs without first consulting your doctor for advice.

Alzheimer’s disease does much more than affect the individual. The disease affects everyone who knows and loves that person as the disease steals precious memories and changes the personality families know and love. Caregivers face a stressful and demanding period adjusting to changes while trying to balance the needs of other family members. It is important to understand there are support groups and options available. There are a number of online support groups and resources that can help guide you and your family through this difficult time. It is common for caregivers to feel stressed or even depressed and overwhelmed at all the changes this disease brings to the family as well as the individual. Active interventions help to reduce stress and depression involved in caring for Alzheimer’s patients. By actively seeking education and training to cope with these changes, caregivers can decrease their risk of depression and stress-related issues. Caregivers and family members face difficulties in dealing with disturbing changes associated with Alzheimer’s that are often contrary to the person they know and love. There are a number of tips for helping your loved one, but it is also important to remember to take time out for yourself.

Several organizations are available that can help you find out more about Alzheimer’s disease. These organizations offer educational materials, resource lists, workshops or support groups. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America helps to connect over 16 hundred organizations throughout the nation. With so many local groups under their organization, you can access their website to find an organization in your area ready to help answer any concerns or questions you have about dealing with Alzheimer’s. Several organizations are active in the continual research needed to understand this disease and to find ways of preventing or curing Alzheimer’s as soon as possible. Hope Center for Neurological Disorders has several studies closing the gap to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, as well understanding the risk factors involved in the disease process.

Organizations

Alzheimer's Foundation of America

Alzheimer'sDisease Research

National Institute on Aging: Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's Society

Alzheimer's Family Organization

Information

PubMed Health: Alzheimer's

Medline Plus: Alzheimer's Disease

Family Caregiver Alliance: Making Choices About Everyday Care

Medical News Today: What is Alzheimer's Disease? What Causes Alzheimer's Disease?

New York Times: Alzheimer's Disease

CDC: Alzheimer's Disease

NINDS: Alzheimer's Disease Information Page

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Early Alzheimer's Disease

Support for the Diagnosed

Alzheimer's Association: 24/7 Hotline

WebMD: Alzheimer's Disease Counseling Support

MD Junction: Alzheimer's Disease Support Group

Daily Strength: Alzheimer's Disease Support Group

Alzheimer's Foundation of America Support Community

Alz Online

For Families of the Diagnosed

New York Times: Disease Brings Drastic Changes to Patients, and Stress to Family Members

Helpguide: Support for Alzheimer's and Dementia Caregivers

AARP: Music Can Help Families Living With Alzheimer's

Eldercare Locator

National Alliance for Caregiving

Berkeley Parents Network: Caring for Parents with Alzheimer's and Dementia

For Kids About the Disease

Neuroscience for Kids: Alzheimer's Disease

Kids Health: Alzheimer's Disease

Everyday Health: Explaining Alzheimer's to a Child or Teen

Mayo Clinic: Alzheimer's- Helping Children Understand the Disease

National Institute on Aging: Alzheimer's Disease Information for Children and Teens Resources List