Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease: What You Really Need to Know
“When you know one person with Alzheimer’s disease, you know one person.” This statement is what most professionals that work with people with Alzheimer’s disease would say. Alzheimer’s disease affects everyone differently.
Let me try to explain the defining characteristics of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is the umbrella term that refers to the loss of cognitive functioning due to neurological changes in the brain. There are many different types of dementias, including Parkinson’s, frontal temporal dementia and vascular or stroke related dementia. However Alzheimer’s disease, or AD, is the most common form of dementia in the US.
AD is a disease of the brain. It affects an estimated 5 million Americans. The disease is more common among people over the age of 80, although it is possible for people in their 40’s and 50’s to get what’s called “early onset” AD. Once diagnosed, people generally live with AD for 8-12 years. There is no known cure, although medications can slow down the progression of the disease.
AD affects memory, orientation, mood, judgment/problem solving, language and motor activity. As the disease progresses, activities of daily living (called ADL’s) are affected, including bathing, dressing, grooming, fixing meals or being able to feed oneself.
People with AD can also experience personality changes. For example, a person can become more moody, easily agitated, introverted or seemingly distant. Or the opposite can happen. People may become easy going, less agitated, extroverted, more talkative and social. Some can even develop paranoia or delusions, and falsely accuse those close to them of such things as having an affair or trying to steal all their money.
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease is both progressive and irreversible. It also is an insidious disease, often not diagnosed until a person is in the more advanced stages of the disease. Those close to the person begin to see more obvious symptoms, such as asking the same questions over and over or forgetting how to do routine tasks such as washing their clothes or fixing meals. Unfortunately, in some situations, AD is not suspected until a crisis ensues, such as the person getting lost while driving.
First, it is important to dispel that myth that dementia is a “normal” aspect of aging. It is one thing to forget a word, misplace keys or forget where your car is in the parking lot. All of us to some extent have “cognitive overload.” We are a fast moving, multitasking culture under a lot of stress.
So how do you know if your loved one might have Alzheimer’s disease? There are some critical questions to ask:
- Is he asking you the same question over and over, right after you have shared the information?
- Is he unable to track conversations or synthesize the information presented to him?
- Is she not even aware that she is forgetting?
- Is she not able to accomplish tasks she was always able to accomplish, such as paying her bills, being able to operate the remote control or the dishwasher?
- Is there a difference in his personality or behavior?
- Is he isolating himself more, such as; not wanting to join in on family events or other social activities?
- Are you noticing that she becomes easily confused with tasks of daily living that normally she was easily able to accomplish?
If you answered yes to any of these, your loved one might benefit from an assessment by a either a Geriatrician, or Neurologist or Psychiatrist who specialize in Geriatrics. There are some distinguishing symptoms that tend to be the classic signs of AD, and it’s critical to have a thorough diagnostic work-up.
If you would like more information, check out the website: www.alz.org.
Nancy Kriseman is the author of The Mindful Caregiver and licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with older people and their families. This column is about helping families make the best decisions possible and be proactive when supporting and caring for elder family members. To contact Nancy, you can visit her website at www.nancykriseman.com, or her Facebook page, or follow her on twitter @GeriatricMSW.
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