We’ve all forgotten something at one time or another. Where did I put my keys? What did I need to get at the store? Did I remember to lock the door? Why did I come into this room?
For most of us, the fast pace of life and how quick thoughts might go in and out of our heads is the likely culprit. If we slow down and try to remember the last time we had our keys, or retrace our steps from the room back to where we were, we can usually jog our memory (most of the time).
As we age, we find that some of these moments happen with a little more frequency. But what happens when it’s not just a routine bout of forgetfulness? And how can you tell if it’s something more serious?
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease
Many of us probably know someone who has/had Alzheimer’s disease or who has been a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. We’ve all heard the term. Most of us know that it is generally an older person who has trouble with short-term memory loss.
But what really is Alzheimer’s? Is it the same as dementia?
Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Memory loss is one symptom of dementia.
There are several different types of dementia. Each can be caused by different factors, such as stroke or thyroid issues. So, it is important to visit an expert to be sure you’re following the best treatment pathway.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for 60-80% of all dementia cases. However, the following conditions can also cause dementia: Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Huntington’s disease and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Vascular dementia can also be brought on after suffering a stroke.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is a slow, progressive brain disease that currently has no cure. It can be treated with medications which may temporarily slow the worsening of symptoms for some.
The most common and obvious symptoms of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information, such as recent conversations, names or events; apathy and depression are also often early symptoms. Later symptoms include impaired communication, poor judgment, disorientation, confusion, behavior changes and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
For many loved ones, the behavior caused by Alzheimer’s is the most challenging and distressing effect of the disease. Persons with Alzheimer’s have been known to ‘wander’ out of the house at all times of the day or night. They become confused or agitated easily and are more prone to outbursts. They may experience restlessness, and you might find that their behavior becomes more repetitive, with them pacing and/or shredding paper or napkins with their hands. The chief cause of these behavioral symptoms is the progressive deterioration of brain cells.
Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s symptoms are separated into stages; early-stage, middle-stage and late-stage. The duration of each stage is different for each individual and can last for years.
Early-Stage (Mild) Alzheimer’s
Many times, some of the early-stage symptoms go unnoticed, because the individual is still able to function independently. Few difficulties and behaviors may be noticed by some who close to the person, but might be shrugged off as part of normal aging.
Common difficulties include:
- Problems coming up with the right word or name
- Trouble remembering names when introduced to new people
- Having greater difficulty performing tasks in social or work settings
- Forgetting material that one has just read
- Losing or misplacing a valuable object
- Increasing trouble with planning or organizing
Middle-Stage (Moderate) Alzheimer’s
The middle-stage is typically the longest stage and can last for many years. A person with middle-stage Alzheimer’s may begin confusing words and become frustrated, even combatant, and acting in unexpected or inappropriate ways.
At this point, symptoms will be noticeable to others and may include:
- Forgetfulness of events or about one’s own personal history
- Feeling moody or withdrawn, especially in socially or mentally challenging situations
- Confusion about where they are or what day it is
- The need for help choosing proper clothing for the season or the occasion
- Trouble controlling bladder and bowels in some individuals
- An increased risk of wandering and becoming lost
- Personality and behavioral changes, including compulsive, repetitive behavior like hand-wringing or tissue shredding
Late-Stage (Severe) Alzheimer’s
In late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, to carry on a conversation and, eventually, to control movement. They may need extensive help with daily activities, and have trouble communicating needs or pain.
At this stage, individuals may:
- Require full-time, around-the-clock assistance with daily personal care
- Lose awareness of recent experiences as well as of their surroundings
- Require high levels of assistance with daily activities and personal care
- Experience changes in physical abilities, including the ability to walk, sit and, eventually, swallow
- Have increasing difficulty communicating
- Become vulnerable to infections, especially pneumonia
Caregivers and Loved Ones
Often, the responsibilities and decision-making are placed on the closest loved ones. A spouse, who may be dealing with his or her own aging difficulties, and adult children of Alzheimer’s patients are often left to deal with a lot of information, appointments, stress, healthcare decisions and more. Caregivers may feel like they are alone. They may feel guilty for a variety of reasons including asking for help, needing a break, losing their temper or not being able to ‘do it all’.
No one can do it all alone. Caregivers need a strong support system. Caregivers have access to respite care, in-home care, adult day centers and more. There are also support groups for caregivers to get together with people who are in the same situation.
One way for caregivers to ensure that they know the wishes of their loved ones is to talk about and complete advance directives before they are thrust into a situation where the person is no longer able to make decisions for themselves. Whether it’s Alzheimer’s, another form of dementia, or any other condition that could potentially leave a person unable to express his/her wishes, having an advance directive, which includes a living will and durable power of attorney (POA) for healthcare is an important part of your medical file.
Without these documents, a loved one will not know what types of treatment or interventions you want. And if you are unmarried, no one is legally able to make those decisions if you have not declared a healthcare POA ahead of time.
What to Do?
If you suspect a loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, your first step should be to visit his/her family doctor. He or she can direct you to a specialist who will look at the person’s full medical history, conduct tests and determine the best treatment options for your loved one. Complete this checklist and bring it with you to the doctor’s visit.
For additional information and caregiver support information, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website at www.alz.org.
For information about early onset (under 65) Alzheimer’s disease, visit http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_early_onset.asp
Source: Alzheimer’s Association