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A decline or loss of mental function that interferes with a person’s normal ability to remember, think, or function is known as dementia. The most commonly encountered form of dementia is a serious condition that is called Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
With Alzheimer’s, which accounts for up to 80 percent of dementia cases, the loss of memory and mental function is a result of the deterioration and death of brain cells.
Alzheimer’s is typically slow to develop, and early onset can occur as early as one’s 40s. When a person is diagnosed with the disease, it has a serious and devastating impact on not only the individual but also on his or her family and close friends. As a result, it is important that the entire family fully understand what Alzheimer’s is and what to expect.
Characteristics of Alzheimer’s Disease
There are certain characteristics that are common to Alzheimer’s. These characteristics typically become more prominent as the disease progresses through its different stages. One of the characteristics most often associated with Alzheimer’s is memory loss. A person with AD may ask the same questions repeatedly or forget events that have just happened. Typically it is the short-term memory that is affected first.
Changes in personality are another characteristic that is easily recognized as a symptom of AD. An individual may behave in a way that differs from his or her normal behavior. In some cases, the person’s mood may change frequently. Aggression, anxiety, and depression are common behavioral changes that can be expected.
Wandering is another sign of AD and a potentially dangerous one. This can occur as a result of hallucinations, or feeling disoriented or confused. Physical changes, such as weight loss, may become more noticeable in the later stages of AD. Loss of muscle is another characteristic that can also be expected during the latter stage of the condition. He or she will also become more susceptible to infections.
The inability to complete routine movements or tasks, such as turning on a light, is called apraxia. This occurs even though the individual’s muscles and coordination are not affected. As AD enters the later stages, a person may lose the ability to perform functions that are more instinctual rather than learned, such as chewing.
When a person loses his or her ability to communicate, it is known as aphasia. He or she may forget how to write, speak, or read. Switch words and meanings will also occur more frequently. Losing the ability to understand what an object is and what it is used for is called agnosia. They may also fail to recognize people who are close to them. In some cases, a person with AD may even fail to recognize internal conditions, such as the need to urinate.
Possible Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease
The exact cause of AD is unknown, however medical professionals believe that there are several possible contributors to the condition. It is believed that for some people, genetics plays a role in both early and late-onset Alzheimer’s.
A specific type of gene known as APOE-e4 is believed to be the cause of up to 25 percent. The presence of this gene only increases the likelihood of getting the disease.
Some professionals believe that people with a lower education may be more susceptible to the disease. The theory is that people with a lesser education have lower mental activity and their minds may be less stimulated.
Early head injury is also another potential cause of the disease.
If there is suspicion that a family member has Alzheimer’s, the first step is to schedule an appointment for the person who potentially has Alzheimer’s to see a doctor as quickly as possible. To the appointment, it is necessary to bring a list of abnormal behavior and concerns. This information should include when the symptoms first began to appear.
The doctor will determine whether a patient likely has AD or if there is another problem. This is done by performing several different steps. At the time of the appointment, the doctor or the assistant will take a medical history. This will provide the doctor with information about any current or past illnesses, as well as information about family history.
Tests, such as blood tests, urine tests and spinal fluid may also be included. A patient may also undergo a physical examination and neurological testing. In addition to these tests, a doctor may require an MRI or other imaging tests to get a more accurate diagnosis.
Caring For a Person With Alzheimer’s
From the time that a person is initially diagnosed with the disease, he or she can be expected to live roughly between three and 20 years. Most often death is a result of an infection or illness, such as pneumonia. This is because as the disease progresses, the person with AD will become more susceptible to sickness from infections and other illnesses.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for the disease, and proper care is necessary to slow the progress of the symptoms and help keep people with AD as healthy as possible. In some cases, a person may be cared for at home by a spouse or member of the family.
For others, caring for a person with Alzheimer’s may prove too difficult, particularly if the person wanders or is overly aggressive. In these cases, a care facility, such as a nursing home, may be the best way to manage a person’s Alzheimer’s care.
In the early stages of the disease, it is helpful to create an environment and atmosphere that is safe but allows the person with AD to feel as normal and independent as possible. Non-medicated, psychosocial intervention has been found to be helpful for many. This may involve structured social activity or showing photos and videos of loved ones and people that they know. Playing familiar music that the person can associate with fond memories or periods in his or her life may also be helpful during this time.
Medications are another method of treatment that may be used for slowing down changes in mental processes. There are two common classes of medications. For mild to moderate cases, cholinesterase inhibitors may be used. For people with Alzheimer’s that is moderate to severe, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonists are used for treatment.
The degree of care will need to be increased during the later stages of AD, as the person will experience increasing problems with eating, dehydration, incontinence, pain, and motility.
Alzheimer’s Affects on The Family
It is painful and difficult for anyone to watch a family member fall victim to the effects of Alzheimer’s. This is particularly difficult for people who are acting as caregivers, who may also suffer from the physical effects of caring for the family member. The stress of the situation can cause loved ones to experience feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, isolation, embarrassment, sadness, and anger. People can seek help to overcome these emotions by expressing their feelings, locating and attending support groups or by sharing the burden of care with others.
Caring for a family member with AD also has a large financial impact on the family. When caring for a family member at home, the caregiver often needs to take time away from work, which results in lost wages. If an at-home nurse is needed, this is another financial burden on top of other medical expenses associated with the disease. If at-home care is not an option, the family must pay for a nursing home or care facility.
- Ten Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s: This article from the Alzheimer’s Association lists 10 warning signs of the disease. It also includes a comparison of changes that are due to age and those that are due to Alzheimer’s. Readers of the article will also learn what to do about them and how they can benefit from early detection.
- Mayo Clinic: Alzheimer’s Disease: The Mayo Clinic guide on Alzheimer’s Disease. The guide begins with an overview of the disease and provides further information such as causes, symptoms, complications, and treatment. Each of the additional sections are accessible by clicking on the appropriate link.
- Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center – Fact Sheet: A fact sheet on the National Institute on Aging website for Alzheimer’s. The fact sheet provides the reader with information changes in the brain, symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: Your Role as Caregiver: WebMD article for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The article gives advice on caring for a loved one while taking care of one’s own health.
- About Alzheimer’s Treatment: A short review of the treatment for Alzheimer’s disease on the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America website. The page also includes links to warning signs, research, cost, and statistics.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: A New York Times Health Guide on Alzheimer’s disease. The guide covers a variety of Alzheimer’s related topics such as the cause of the disease, symptoms, and prevention.
- Alzheimer’s Basics: An Alzheimer’s disease overview on the website for HBO’s The Alzheimer’s Project. Links to The Alzheimer’s Project films about the disease are a part of the page, in addition to links on the national impact of the disease and scientific information.
- Alzheimer’s Disease – Causes and Risk Factors: A page on the NIH Senior Health website that explains to readers what the potential risk factors are for the disease.
- Overview of Diagnostic Tests for Alzheimer’s Disease: A section on the Alzheimer’s disease web page for Cleveland Clinic. The page reviews some of the tests that are given to determine if a person has Alzheimer’s.
- Alzheimer’s.gov – People Helping People With Alzheimer’s: A government website that provides valuable free information for people who are caring for Alzheimer’s patients and loved ones who have the disease.
- Early Alzheimer’s Disease: A guide that is designed with both the patient and the patient’s family in mind. The guide is presented by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).
- Dementia’s, Including Alzheimer’s: An article about dementia and why it is important for people to be educated about it. The article includes Alzheimer’s as the most common form of dementia.
- Center for Disease Control – Alzheimer’s Disease: The CDC page on Alzheimer’s disease that providers readers with a detailed review of the disease. The page also includes information on support for family and loved ones.
- Care for the Caregiver: An American Health Assistance Foundation PDF document about stress and providing long-term care for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The PDF discusses recognizing and reducing stress.
- When Should Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease Stop Driving: A PDF from the American Academy of Neurology that discusses a study regarding how long a patient with mild Alzheimer’s disease can safely drive.
- University of Washington – Alzheimer’s Disease Page: A detailed explanation of Alzheimer’s. The page reviews information such as the areas of the brain that are affected by the disease and what a person can do to try to protect their brain as they age.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Alzheimer’s Treatment: Readers of this article will learn the treatment methods during the different stages of Alzheimer’s. The article also discusses caregivers and gives 12 steps for caregivers to follow when caring for a person with Alzheimer’s.
- Alzheimer’s will cost the U.S. $20 Trillion Over the Next 40 years: A Medill Northwest University article that appears in the Medill Reports Chicago that discusses a report on the cost of Alzheimer’s released by the Alzheimer’s Association. The article discusses the increasing cost of care by the year 2050.
- Alzheimer’s Caring for the Caregiver: A University of Nebraska Omaha News and Events article that discusses the toll that the disease has on caregivers. The article also includes statistics based on Alzheimer’s in America.
- What Alzheimer’s Does: Symptoms and Effects: A page on the Arizona State University website that lists Alzheimer’s early warning signs in a bulleted format. The page also lists side-effects that occur as the disease develops.