WHAT IS ALZHEIMER’S?
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with a person’s memory, thinking, language and behavior. It is a progressive illness where the symptoms worsen over time and eventually becomes severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. It estimated that Alzheimer’s diagnosis account for around 60 to 80% of all dementia cases, making it the most common type of dementia.
During the course of the disease, there is a buildup of proteins that form structures in the brain known as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These plaques and tangles are what is considered to be a main feature of Alzheimer’s. The buildup leads to the loss of connections between nerve cells, where it causes the death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue. As more nerve cells die and brain tissue die, the symptoms worsen. Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness with no known cure or treatment currently available.
QUICK LINKS - TOPICS COVERED:
- WHAT IS ALZHEIMER’S?
- WHO DOES IT AFFECT?
- SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER’S
- HOW TO SPOT SYMPTOMS OFALZHEIMER’S
- WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR LOVED ONE HAS ALZHEIMER’S
- HOW TO COPE
WHO DOES IT AFFECT?
Age is a key factor in determining the risk of Alzheimer’s. The older a person, the greater the risk they have of suffering from Alzheimer’s. A large number of individuals affected tend to be in their mid-60s when symptoms start to appear. However, there are also instances, though rare, where individuals younger than 65 are diagnosed, some even as young as 40 years old. In such cases, it is known as early-onset Alzheimer’s.
SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER’S
While a normal part of aging involves some slowed thinking and occasional lapses in memory, the symptoms in someone with Alzheimer’s deteriorate over time at a rate that is not considered normal.
The main symptoms of Alzheimer’s include a decline in cognitive functions, memory, and communication. Other symptoms include:
- Memory impairment with regards to remembering recent events or conversations.
- Impaired judgment
- Behavioral changes
- Loss of ability to communicate
- Inability to swallow
*the last three symptoms usually appear during the last stages of Alzheimer’s.
The progress of Alzheimer’s can be roughly split into three stages, mild, moderate, and severe.
Mild (Early Stages)
At this stage, a person’s dementia is quite mild. Sometimes, the person may not even realize that they’re experiencing symptoms as they are usually still able to function independently. They may drive, work, and socialize as they always do. However, they may be experiencing memory lapses such as forgetting recent events, familiar words, or locations.
Common difficulties a person may face include:
- Problems coming up with the right words or name for everyday objects
- Trouble remembering names when introduced to new people
- Challenges performing tasks in social or work settings, especially new tasks
- Forgetting material that one just read or had a conversation about
- Losing or misplacing things such as keys, wallet, etc.
- Increased difficult with planning and organizing
Moderate (Middle Stages)
This is the longest stage and can last for many years. By now, diagnosis has usually been made and the person with dementia will need greater level of care. While they are still able to accomplish some tasks independently, they will need supervision and assistance with many other things.
For example, the person will likely be able to feed and dress themselves, but may need help with paying bills, cooking, and driving. Mood swings and personality changes are common at this point due to their inability to express their thoughts and perform tasks that they wish to.
Some noticeable symptoms include:
- Forgetfulness of events and about one’s own personal history
- Feeling moody or withdrawn, especially in socially or mentally challenging situations
- Unable to recall addresses, telephone numbers, and other information
- Confusion about date and time
- Needing help choosing clothing according to season and weather
- Incontinence for some individuals
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Increased wandering
- Personality and behavior changes, including suspiciousness and delusions or compulsive repetitive behavior like hand-wringing.
Severe (Late Stages)
This is the last stage of the progression of Alzheimer’s. At this point, a person would be completely dependent upon a caregiver for almost everything. They lose their ability to respond to their environment, to communicate, and eventually to control movement.
Some things to note for late stage Alzheimer’s include:
The person will need round-the-clock assistance with daily activities and personal care
They would lose awareness of recent experiences and of their surroundings
Loss of ability to walk, sit, and eventually swallow
Increased difficulty to communicate. Some may lose it completely
Vulnerability to infections, especially pneumonia
HOW TO SPOT SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER’S?
Early signs of Alzheimer’s are quite mild and any changes can be ascribed to other causes such as stress, fatigue, etc. Sometimes the person with the disease may not even realize that they are experiencing symptoms as they are usually still able to function independently. They may drive, work, and socialize as they usually do. However, if the memory lapses increase and socialization patterns change, it is important to make note and observe closely.
Some cues to watch out for are:
Problems coming up with the right words
A person may suddenly forget the name of common, everyday objects. They may substitute it with other words to describe an item. For example, the person might refer to a clock as ‘time teller’. They might also mix up words. For instance, they may say ‘bed’ instead of ‘table’.
Trouble remembering names
Remembering names of people can be difficult with Alzheimer’s. The person may either mix up names or completely forget them. This can be especially challenging in a work or social setting.
Difficulty performing tasks
Whether it is performing familiar tasks or new ones, Alzheimer’s can make it challenging. For example, following a recipe can take longer or the end product might not be made correctly. The person may forget to add in an ingredient or add it more than once. Doing new and unfamiliar tasks can also be disconcerting for someone with Alzheimer’s. They may take longer in completing them and the quality of their work might be less. These things can be especially prevalent in the workplace.
Forgetting recent events or conversations
Recent events may not be remembered. For example, a person may ask the same question a few minutes apart or deny having had a conversation with someone the previous day. Another example is when a person doesn’t remember buying groceries and goes out to buy again the following day. A brain with Alzheimer’s has difficulty with recent memory. Older memories are usually intact until further deterioration.
Losing or misplacing things
Losing or misplacing things with increasing frequency is a sign of Alzheimer’s. Whether it is misplacing your wallet or forgetting your house keys, they should be kept not off, especially if it happens more than a couple of times
With early stage Alzheimer’s, you might find the person getting lost while walking or driving around a familiar area. They might not remember the directions to their destination or they might forget their destination entirely, leaving them confused and scared as to how and why they ended up in their position of the moment.
Difficulty with planning and organizing
Managing one’s finances or running a household requires lots of planning and organizing. When a person has Alzheimer’s, things might start to get chaotic. Bills may not be paid on time, cleaning of the house might be forgotten, or groceries may not be bought.
Changes in personality and behavior
When a person experiences the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s such as memory loss and communication difficulties, they may start to avoid situations that brings their symptoms into prominence. For example, someone who used to be an extroverted personality, may become more introverted to avoid the embarrassment of mixing up with their words or forgetting things.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR LOVED ONE HAS ALZHEIMER’S
Many people, both men and women, will experience incontinence during the later stages of dementia. Factors such as the inability to recognize the need to use the restroom, forgetting where the bathroom is located, mediations, stress, certain physical or other medical conditions, constipation, or clothing that is difficult to remove can lead to incontinence in people with dementia.
In late stage dementia, the person often has completely lost their ability to communicate, comprehend, and take care of their self. Therefore, they will be highly dependent on a caregiver to manage most of their daily needs and conditions, including incontinence.
HOW TO COPE
A diagnosis for Alzheimer’s is difficult; for both the person being diagnosed and those close to them. The acceptance of a terminal illness is not an easy process and takes time.
One of the first things that both you and your loved one will face after a diagnosis for Alzheimer’s is emotional stress. You will go through a range of emotions including shock and disbelief, denial, anger, grief, fear, and even relief. In order to keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed, journaling, counseling, or attending support group can help in managing those emotions effectively. You can even attend these sessions with your loved one so that you can cope together.
Sometimes your loved one might isolate their self after diagnosis. While it is important to give some space for them to process their own emotions, it is also equally important to be present and show continual support. Treat them with respect. Although their memory and cognitive functions are declining, avoid making them feel helpless. Encourage spending time with family and friends. Keep them physically and mentally active. Help your loved one make the necessary arrangements to manage their assets and finances in the future.
Another important way of coping can be preparing for the progression of Alzheimer’s. Gather as much information as you can. Learn about what to expect as the disease progresses. Understand the symptoms that yourloved one is likely to experience at each stage and how to effectively manage them. Find out what resources are available for you to take up as the disease progresses. This includes treatments, medications, and caregiving arrangements every step of the way.