It is estimated that over five million people have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. Understanding the specifics of the disease and being able to spot the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s can help a person prepare for the effects of this brain disease.
So, what exactly is Alzheimer’s disease? It is a progressive and degenerative disorder that attacks the cells and nerves in the brain. The breakdown of these cells destroys certain mental functions such as memory, language and behavioral skills.
Although the actual causes of Alzheimer’s are still unknown, when examined, a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease will usually have two types of abnormalities on their brain. The first abnormality is plaque, which is a clump of protein called beta-amyloid that damages the brain. The buildup of plaque surrounds the outside of the brain cells causing interference with cell-to-cell communication. The second abnormality is tangles. Since brain cells need a transport system to carry nutrients, the threads that transport these nutrients twist into tangles causing a failure of transport. The breakdown in transportation is thought to be believed as a contributing factor in the decline of the brain cells.
Typically, there are three stages of Alzheimer’s: early, middle and late. Early symptoms often include changes in both memory and reasoning skills. During the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, damage to the brain can make it difficult to express thoughts and perform routine tasks. You may notice the person with Alzheimer’s jumbling words, having trouble dressing, getting frustrated or angry, or acting in unexpected ways, such as refusing to bathe. In late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, balance and coordination in addition to autonomic functions, including heart rate, breathing and digestion are significantly negatively impacted. In the final stages of this phase, neurological damage and muscular degeneration cause people with the disease unable to perform even basic movements, like walking and maintaining control of their bladder and bowels. They may not even be able to swallow without assistance. The leading cause of death in Alzheimer’s patients is a secondary infection, commonly a bacterial infection that their immunocompromised body is too weak to fight, such as pneumonia.
But it’s not all bad news. There are medications available to help slow down the progression of the symptoms and help improve quality of life. Medication and treatment options vary from person to person, so having an open dialogue with your physician is very important. In addition, practicing a healthy lifestyle may help slow the progression of the disease. This would include getting ample sleep, exercise, and eating healthy; a Mediterranean diet is recommended with plenty of fruits and vegetables. In addition, it’s recommended that people with Alzheimer’s practice ‘brain exercises,’ which they can do by playing bridge, reading and other activities that utilize a lot of brain power.
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s currently, and the majority of people diagnosed with it live approximately four to eight years after diagnosis, still many live as long as 20 years or more after being diagnosed. A lot depends on how well a person takes care of their health. That’s why it’s important to talk to your physician about the best medication options for you and to also maintain a healthy lifestyle.
If you are caring for someone and you think that they might be suffering from Alzheimer’s, here are some warning signs to help you asses if you should take further action:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, forgetting recent information is common. Missing appointments, forgetting important dates, needing to ask for the same information repeatedly, or relying on others to handle things that used to be handled independently are all warning signs if occurring frequently.
- Difficulty with familiar tasks. Alzheimer’s patients can have problems accomplishing daily and familiar tasks like keeping track of bills and taking longer time to do things they did before.
- Confusion with time and place. Losing track of times, places, seasons and passage of time are all warning signs. If you notice that a person forgets where they are or how they got there, you should take action.
- Trouble understanding visual images. A sign of Alzheimer’s is having difficulty with perceptions. For example, if a person with Alzheimer’s passes his or her reflection in a mirror, he or she might think that there is another person in the room.
- Changes in mood and personality. If you have noticed that your loved one’s mood and personality has changed such as becoming easily upset, confused, depressed, anxious or fearful, you might want to follow up with your doctor.
If you have noticed changes in your loved one’s behavior or actions, you should consult a physician.
This information is for educational purposes. Please consult your physician for any medical issues. The Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) is committed to bringing trusted and quality home health, hospice and private care to Indian River County patients. For more information about VNA services, call 772-494-6161 or visit www.vnatc.com.