National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month
President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month in 1983. At the time, fewer than 2 million Americans had Alzheimer’s; today, the number of people with the disease has soared to nearly 5.4 million. Get involved this month, and help raise awareness for Alzheimer’s disease.
Although Alzheimer’s affects approximately 1 in every 2 families in the U.S., and has been extensively covered in the media, there’s still quite a bit of information about Alzheimer’s that you might not be aware of.
Alzheimer’s and dementia basics
Memory and Speech
In early Alzheimer’s, long-term memories usually remain intact while short-term memories become sketchy. Your loved one may forget conversations you had. She may repeat questions that were already answered. The disease also disrupts speech, so she might struggle to remember common words.
In addition to memory loss, Alzheimer’s can cause confusion and behavior changes. Your loved one may get lost in familiar places. Mood swings and lapses in judgment are also common, as is poor hygiene. People who were once stylish may start wearing stained clothes and forget to wash their hair.
Don't Ignore the Signs
It's hard to face the thought that a loved one could have this disease, but it's better to see a doctor sooner rather than later. First, the diagnosis might be something else. The symptoms could be caused by a highly treatable problem, like a thyroid imbalance. And if it is Alzheimer’s, treatments work best when they’re used early in the course of the disease.
How Is It Diagnosed?
There’s no simple test for Alzheimer’s, so the doctor will rely on you to describe the changes in your loved one. A mental status test, sometimes called a “mini-cog,” or other screening tests can measure his mental skills and short-term memory. Neurological exams and brain scans may be used to rule out other problems, like a stroke or tumor, and they can provide other information about his brain.
What Happens to the Brain?
Alzheimer’s causes nerve cell death and tissue loss throughout the brain. As the disease gets worse, brain tissue shrinks and areas that contain cerebrospinal fluid become larger. The damage harms memory, speech, and comprehension.
What to Expect
Alzheimer’s takes a different path in every person. Sometimes the symptoms get worse quickly and lead to severe memory loss and confusion within a few years. For other people the changes are gradual. It could take 20 years for the disease to run its course. Most people live 3 to 9 years after diagnosis.
Can Exercise Help?
Physical activity can help your loved one keep some muscle strength and coordination. It might also boost his mood and help him feel less anxious. Check with his doctor to learn which types of exercise are appropriate. Repetitive activities, like walking, gardening, or even folding laundry may be the best at giving him a sense of calm.
How Is It Treated?
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s and no way to slow the nerve damage it causes in the brain. But there are medications that appear to help maintain mental skills and slow the disease’s effects. If your loved one gets treatment early on, she may be able to stay independent and do her daily tasks for a longer period of time.
The Caregiver's Role
If you’re caring for someone with this disease, you’ll probably wear many hats -- cook, chauffeur, and accountant to name a few. While you may have to handle meal planning and finances, encourage your loved one to do some things for herself. It may help to label cabinets with their contents and put up sticky notes with reminders of daily tasks. Be sure to buy a weekly pill box for her medications.
Challenges in Caregiving
In the early stages, people with Alzheimer’s often understand what’s happening to them. They may be ashamed or get anxious. Watch for signs of depression, which the doctor can manage with medication. Later on, your loved one may become paranoid or aggressive and could even turn on you. Remember that the disease is responsible for this change. Tell the doctor about this kind of behavior promptly.