Illness Spotlight – Alzheimer’s Disease

What is Alzheimer’s? And what is Dementia?

Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.

Two months ago, my mother was diagnosed with Dementia and the Dementia they feel that she has is Alzheimer’s.  It started about a year or so ago with her forgetting things and repeating stories. At first we thought it was just over-stressed from taking care of my dad but as things progressed, she too realized that there are things that aren’t right all the time.  Its comes and goes.  She isn’t bad all the time but there are times that she is really bad and then on top of the Dementia, she then has mini strokes that happen. They aren’t sure if the strokes are from the Dementia or the Dementia is from the strokes.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s are

The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information because Alzheimer’s changes typically begin in the part of the brain that affects learning. As Alzheimer’s advances through the brain it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory loss and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking

Alzheimer’s and dementia basics:

  • Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases
  • Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging,
  • Alzheimer’s worsens over time.
  • Alzheimer’s has no current cure, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continue
  • Scientist still do not know what causes Alzheimer’s

To diagnose Alzheimer’s, doctors may:

  • Ask the person and a family member or friend questions about overall health, past medical problems, ability to carry out daily activities, and changes in behavior and personality
  • Conduct tests of memory, problem solving, attention, counting, and language
  • Carry out standard medical tests, such as blood and urine tests, to identify other possible causes of the problem
  • Perform brain scans, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET), to rule out other possible causes for symptoms

Alzheimer’s is a hard disease to understand and harder to watch a loved one go through. There is some things that can be done to help slow down the process, but there is no cure at this time.

Maintaining Mental Function

Several medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Donepezil (Aricept®), rivastigmine (Exelon®), and galantamine (Razadyne®) are used to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer’s (donepezil can be used for severe Alzheimer’s as well). Memantine (Namenda®) is used to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. These drugs work by regulating neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons. They may help maintain thinking, memory, and communication skills, and help with certain behavioral problems. However, these drugs don’t change the underlying disease process. They are effective for some but not all people, and may help only for a limited time.

Managing Behavior

Common behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s include sleeplessness, wandering, agitation anxiety, and aggression. Scientists are learning why these symptoms occur and are studying new treatments—drug and non-drug—to manage them. Research has shown that treating behavioral symptoms can make people with Alzheimer’s more comfortable and makes things easier for caregivers.

Looking for New Treatments

Alzheimer’s disease research has developed to a point where scientists can look beyond treating symptoms to think about addressing underlying disease processes. In ongoing clinical trials, scientists are developing and testing several possible interventions, including immunization therapy, drug therapies, cognitive training, physical activity, and treatments used for cardiovascular and diabetes.

Support for family members

Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease can have high physical, emotional, and financial costs. The demands of day-to-day care, changes in family roles, and decisions about placement in a care facility can be difficult. There are several evidence-based approaches and programs that can help, and researchers are continuing to look for new and better ways to support caregivers.

Becoming well-informed about the disease is one important long-term strategy. Programs that teach families about the various stages of Alzheimer’s and about ways to deal with difficult behaviors and other caregivers challenges can help.

Good coping skills, a strong support network, and respite care are other ways that help caregivers handle the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. For example, staying physically active provides physical and emotional benefits.

Some caregivers have found that joining a support group is a critical lifeline. These support groups allow caregivers to find respite, express concerns, share experiences, get tips, and receive emotional comfort. Many organizations sponsor in-person and online support groups, including groups for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and their families.

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