OCTOBER 1, 2015
Alzheimer’s disease is a common form of dementia that causes memory loss and decreased brain function, conditions which worsen as the disease progresses. It’s also a disease that researchers and physicians do not know enough about – it’s unclear what causes Alzheimer’s and there is no known cure. What is certain is that Alzheimer’s affects an increasing number of people: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 5 million Americans living with the disease in 2013, and that number is expected to grow to 14 million by 2050.
September is World Alzheimer’s Month, and Texas Health Care physicians want you to know the basics about this disease. “As with most health problems associated with aging, Alzheimer’s can be a difficult topic to think about or talk about for someone who is affected by the disease, as well as his or her loved ones,” said Texas Health Care member and Neurologist Jiangping “J.P.” Liu, M.D. “But it’s important to recognize the symptoms and know what to do in the event you or a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
What’s the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Dementia is not the name of a disease, but a term that describes cognitive symptoms associated with aging, including memory loss, reduced judgment, and the inability to perform routine life functions. According to the Mayo Clinic, the presence of two or more of these symptoms indicate dementia. There are multiple conditions that cause dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease likely the most common one.
What are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease?
Memory loss is one of the major symptoms of the Alzheimer’s disease. Everyone suffers from memory loss periodically; occasionally forgetting where you put something or even someone’s name does not mean you have Alzheimer’s. However, forgetting things often and repeatedly may be an indication of a problem. After the age of 60 years old, if you or a loved one begin to have trouble remembering basic information in the course of your daily activities, have trouble handling money and paying bills, or challenges with other routine tasks, then you should visit with your physician and share your symptoms. Additional symptoms which could indicate Alzheimer’s include:
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease
While researchers do not know what exactly causes Alzheimer’s, there are some known risk factors, with age being the most significant – nearly all Alzheimer’s patients are aged 65 or older, though five percent of Alzheimer’s cases are considered early-onset, affecting people in their 30,s, 40’s and 50’s. Heredity and genetics also appear to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s, particularly if a first-degree relative had the disease.
Additionally, some lifestyle factors may play a role in cognitive health, including the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. Smoking, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure may increase the likelihood of Alzheimer’s. In addition, a person who has diabetes that is not well-managed may be at higher risk.
Unfortunately, there is not a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, nor is there a treatment that can stop or reverse the progression of the disease. There are, however, medications available which can help ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. And doctors and scientists are actively researching what causes the disease and searching for a cure.
Regular exercise and good nutrition are important for Alzheimer’s patients, as well. Exercise improves mood and overall health, just as it does for anyone. It also enhances strength and stability, which are especially important as we age. Alzheimer’s patients – and their caregivers – must be intentional about nutrition. It is not uncommon for someone with Alzheimer’s to lose interest in eating or simply forget to do so. Regular, nutritious meals, along with plenty of fluids, such as water and juice, are very important for Alzheimer’s patients.
Caring for an Alzheimer’s patient
When caring for a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s, flexibility and patience is key. As the disease progresses, the care process can be frustrating and saddening, however, there are ways to make the caring process easier. Alzheimer’s patients have better days when they are in a calming environment and not exposed to stressful situations. Loud noises, shouting and arguments can cause Alzheimer’s patients to become upset easily, and when upset, the patient is more likely to experience cognitive symptoms.
Providing a stable environment, establishing a routine and limiting your loved one’s choices can make the situation easier. Just remember that flexibility is key: caregivers must be flexible and patient and willing to adapt their routines, as a loved one’s ability to function could vary from day to day.
“Your physician can provide advice – both to the patient and their loved ones – on the best ways to cope with and manage a difficult disease like Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Liu. “If you suspect you or a family member may be demonstrating symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s, please see your doctor as soon as possible so you can get the best treatment at the earliest opportunity.”
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