Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder that impacts mental functions such as memory. It begins as mild confusion before developing into its more severe state, which causes significant memory loss and personality change. People with Alzheimer’s, and their loved ones, face unique challenges as they navigate the illness. Keep reading to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and how to manage it.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer's is a progressive disease. It results in memory loss and the loss of other vital mental functions. In the beginning, a person with the condition may begin to forget dates and events. The condition will progress, until people forget loved ones, struggle to carry out everyday tasks, and undergo extreme changes in personality.
Alzheimer’s can be managed through medication and lifestyle changes. But there is no cure for Alzheimer's and people with the condition typically lose function and independence as the disease progresses.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, the latest Alzheimer's statistics report that five-point-seven million Americans currently live with the disease. This number is expected to increase to fourteen million by 2050. Alzheimer’s is responsible for more deaths than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
Some people use the terms Alzheimer's and dementia interchangeably. But there is a difference between the two.
Dementia is a term used to describe a group of symptoms that affect memory, communication skills, social skills, and the ability to carry out certain daily tasks. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia.
Other diseases like Alzheimer’s (other forms of dementia) include:
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
- Dementia from Parkinson's disease
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
- Pick's disease
- Vascular dementia
It is possible to have more than one type of dementia, which is known as mixed dementia.
Types of Alzheimer's Disease
The types of Alzheimer’s disease, or Alzheimer's stages, are as follows:
- Early-onset Alzheimer's. This occurs when the disease affects people under 65 years of age. Early-onset Alzheimer’s is rare, affecting up to five percent of people with Alzheimer’s.
- Late-onset Alzheimer's. This type is more common and affects adults aged 65 and older. The cause is unknown.
- Familial Alzheimer's disease (FAD). This form runs in families. FAD is rare, and accounts for less than one percent of all Alzheimer's cases. Most people with early-onset Alzheimer's have FAD.
What Causes Alzheimer's?
A combination of genes, lifestyle choices, and environmental factors likely cause Alzheimer’s. A known genetic cause is rare, occurring less than five percent of the time.
What is known is that those with early-onset Alzheimer’s have a defect in chromosome fourteen in their DNA. This may play a role in the muscle twitching and spasms that are more common in the early-onset form of the disease.
In addition to the above Alzheimer's disease causes, there are several factors that increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. These are known as risk factors, and include:
Older adults are most at risk of Alzheimer’s, with the risk increasing after age 65. Dementia rates double every ten years after the age of 60. Those with early-onset Alzheimer's can begin to see symptoms in their 30s.
Women are more likely than men to develop Alzheimer's. This is partly because women have a longer lifespan.
The risk of Alzheimer's increases if a parent or sibling has the disease. Some rare genetic mutations also strongly suggest that certain people will develop the condition.
People with Down syndrome often develop Alzheimer's disease, typically ten to twenty years earlier than people without Down syndrome.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) have an increased risk of developing dementia at a later stage.
History of Head Trauma
If you have had a severe head trauma in the past, you may be at higher risk of Alzheimer’s.
Some factors that increase the risk of heart disease may also increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's. These factors include smoking, leading a sedentary lifestyle, being obese, having high blood pressure or cholesterol, and eating an unhealthy diet.
Mental and Social Activities
If you have a low education level (less than high school) or do not participate in lifelong learning or socially stimulating activities, you are at increased risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Some of the early signs of Alzheimer's include forgetfulness, difficulty organizing thoughts, and mild confusion.
Often, the person with Alzheimer’s is the first to notice something is wrong. But other times, it can be family, friends, or co-workers that notice something unusual. Each person experiences worsening symptoms at a different rate.
Over time, Alzheimer’s can cause:
- Loss of memory, especially recent memories
- Trouble finding the words to express oneself
- Loss of concentration
- Problems with finances and other number-based tasks
- Challenges when responding to problems
- Changes in judgement and decision-making abilities
- Difficulty planning things, from meals to outings
- Changes in personality and behavior
- Feelings of depression, anxiety, and irritability
- Social withdrawal
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Delusions and distrust in others
How is Alzheimer's Diagnosed?
There is no specific Alzheimer's test. Instead, your doctor will use a physical examination and other tests to determine if Alzheimer’s is the cause of your symptoms.
They may perform:
- Physical and neurological exams
- Blood tests
- Mental status tests
- Assessments of thinking and memory (neuropsychological testing)
- MRI scans and other types of brain imaging
While there is no Alzheimer’s cure, many people can slow disease progression and enjoy a good quality of life with a comprehensive Alzheimer's disease treatment plan. Work with your healthcare team to formulate such a plan, which may include treatments and techniques like:
This step is a key part of any Alzheimer’s treatment plan. It involves establishing routines and reducing demands on a person’s memory. Keep keys and wallets in a set place around the home so patients remember where they are. Remove clutter, unnecessary furniture, and rugs to minimize trips and falls. Keep family photographs around the home to jog memory, and remove mirrors, which may be frightening. Use a whiteboard to track schedules and appointments.
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Trips and falls are a real concern for Alzheimer's patients. Minimize risk by installing grab bars on stairways and in other areas of the home. These safety bars can lend much-needed stability wherever you like.
Add a bed safety rail to your mattress to make transfers into and out of bed simple. ( See Product )
There are specialized safety bars made for other rooms of the home. Use bed safety rails in the bedroom, and toilet safety rails in the bathroom, to ensure you always have the stability you need.
Toilet grab are a simple and effective way to make it from the toilet to your mobility device. ( See Product )
Carry a mobile phone with location tracking to keep caregivers alerted to your location at all times. This can be a lifesaver in those times you get lost or become disorientated. Also, wear an Alzheimer’s bracelet so people can provide you with assistance in the event you do get lost.
Caregivers will benefit from a wireless pager, which helps them stay in touch with patients wherever they go. ( See Product )
At home, install a bathroom telephone in case you have an accident while showering or using the toilet. You can also consider getting a caregiver wireless pager to connect caregivers at the push of a button.
Try a wireless bed alarm to keep caregivers alert whenever patients rise from bed. ( See Product )
With wireless bed alarms and wheelchair alarms it becomes easier to keep track of your patient's movements. Knowing whether they've left their bed or chair is crucial to preventing falls.
Slim and comfotable, wheelchair alarms make it easier to keep track of patients. ( See Product )
Physical Activities for Alzheimer's Patients
Everyone needs regular exercise, including those with dementia. Some of the best activities for Alzheimer's patients include:
Exercise improves the heart and muscles and may reduce Alzheimer’s risk. It also boosts mood, reduces constipation, and aids sleep.
People with Alzheimer's can forget to eat or drink, or may not remember how to prepare meals. However, it is important that they eat a balanced diet to protect cognitive health. Caregivers can offer:
- Plenty of water and other healthy drinks, such as herbal teas
- Healthy smoothies to increase calorie intake
- Protein shakes
- Easy-to-eat meals of soft foods, such as mashed vegetables and pureed proteins
Some experts suggest that a Mediterranean diet—rich in fruits, vegetables and legumes—may be the best option for heart and brain health.
Supplements for Alzheimer’s
Several supplements claim to help people retain cognitive health. The most widely studied include omega-3 fats and vitamin E. Fish is rich in omega-3 fats are also found in fish oil supplements and algae-based supplements. Almonds and sunflower seeds are particularly rich in vitamin E, but you can also find it in fortified breakfast cereals and margarines.
Note that some supplements may interact with medications so you should speak with your doctor before trying any new product.
Doctors can currently prescribe two types of Alzheimer's drugs. Cholinesterase inhibitors increase levels of a particular chemical messenger in the brain that is low in people with Alzheimer's disease. Memantine (Namenda) slows disease progression in moderate to severe Alzheimer's cases.
You may also need other medications to deal with associated symptoms. For example, you may require antidepressants, sleep medications, or anti-anxiety drugs.
If remembering medications is difficult, use a pill organizer and ask your doctor about switching to a once-daily dosing regimen.
Social and Emotional Support
Discovering you have a form of dementia can cause many emotions to surface, from confusion and anger to fear and grief. Seek emotional help from family, friends, and professionals. Look for an Alzheimer's support group in your area.
Remember that social engagement and intellectual stimulation can prevent cognitive decline and enrich your life. Take steps to stay social and work on your mental health.
Alzheimer's Disease Prognosis
For people aged 65 or more with Alzheimer's, life expectancy is four to eight years after diagnosis. But some people can live for up to twenty years after symptoms first appear.
Some of the complications and effects of Alzheimer's include:
- Memory loss
- Language loss and inability to communicate thoughts and feelings
- Impaired judgment
- Other cognitive changes
- Difficulty swallowing and controlling the bowel and bladder
- Balance problems and increased risk of falls and fractures
- Pneumonia and other infections
- Risk of malnutrition and dehydration
There is no known method of Alzheimer's disease prevention. However, because the risk factors for heart disease and Alzheimer's disease are similar, it may be helpful to:
- Monitor your blood pressure
- Track your blood cholesterol
- Lose excess weight
- Keep diabetes under control
- Eat a balanced diet, such as the Mediterranean diet
- Stay active
- Keep mentally and socially engaged
Those with Alzheimer’s aren’t the only ones who need support. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over sixteen million Americans care for a loved one with a form of dementia. These caregivers also need support and encouragement.
If you are a caregiver, there are some steps you can take to make your role less overwhelming:
- Learn about Alzheimer’s and related conditions like Sundowner’s syndrome
- Liaise with doctors and social workers as necessary
- Look for support from friends and family
- Take regular breaks
- Exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet
- Take some time every day to do something you enjoy
- Join a support group
- Use devices to make your job less physically demanding, such as transfer belts
- Make use of Alzheimer's care facilities, so that you can get breaks from your caring role
- Check out these tips from experts on caring for elderly parents at home
Dealing with Alzheimer's Disease
Learning that you have Alzheimer's may be shocking and overwhelming. Take time to familiarize yourself with the condition and its symptoms. Be sure to work with your doctors to find the best treatments for your needs. Don’t forget to look for social and emotional support during this difficult time.
Alzheimer's caregivers also need to take time to care for themselves while looking after a loved one with dementia. Alzheimer’s may not be curable, but it can be managed with treatments and devices to improve patient well being and to maintain quality of life for as long as possible.