Living with Alzheimer’s Disease

Surveys in recent years show that, even more than death, older adults fear the possibility of developing Alzheimer's disease. And with good reason: each year, approximately 350,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with the condition. Can Alzheimer's be prevented or delayed? Intriguing new research suggests that it can. But even for people who have the disease, managing the condition is an important goal—and for the patient and family members alike, knowledge is the first step.

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that causes dementia. Dementia is the deterioration of memory, language, personality and the ability to process information. Alzheimer's disease is not the only condition that leads to dementia; other causes include stroke, chronic alcohol abuse, vitamin deficiencies, and Parkinson's disease. Depression, too, may share some of the same early symptoms. So if Alzheimer's disease is suspected, it is important that thorough testing be performed to rule out other conditions that might be reversible.

What Causes Alzheimer's Disease?

As we grow older, certain changes in brain tissue occur in all of us. But in people with Alzheimer's disease, the changes occur in large numbers of cells and in specific areas of the brain. Alzheimer's patients develop what are called amyloid plaques (abnormal clumps of protein) and neurofibrillary tangles (nerve cells that become tangled and dysfunctional). Certain chemicals responsible for transmitting nerve impulses in the brain are reduced. No one knows exactly why this happens, and research efforts are still underway to discover the cause or causes of Alzheimer's.

What Are the Symptoms?

Alzheimer's disease usually comes on slowly, with a gradual deterioration of memory and difficulty learning new information. The patient develops problems in carrying out familiar tasks, understanding concepts, and taking care of grooming or household chores. Personality changes, restlessness, and disorientation may also occur, and as the disease progresses, these symptoms become more pronounced. In its later stages, Alzheimer's disease is characterized by a lack of concern for appearance or body function, significant sleep disturbances, extreme irritability, and loss of ability to speak. Gradually, the person stops eating or drinking regularly.

What Can Be Done?

Alzheimer's disease must be diagnosed by a physician who is experienced in identifying and treating this disease. At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer's, though certain treatments, including some drugs, can help control symptoms. Drugs now being tested may someday offer more concrete hope for patients and families. But in the absence of a cure, some forms of treatment can help, including treating any other illnesses the patient might be experiencing, using medication to help control anxiety or other symptoms, and participating in certain therapeutic activities. It is important to provide a supportive environment for people with Alzheimer's, in which as much dignity and self-respect as possible can be maintained.

The adjustment of both patient and family to a diagnosis of Alzheimer's may be very difficult. It can help to talk with others who have a family member with Alzheimer's, and to join a support group. Help is out there, and this is a time to take advantage of community resources.

For more information, visit the Alzheimer's Association website that offers information and resources for people with Alzheimer's, their families and professionals.

Article submitted by Stephen Cupp with Senior Helpers of West Knoxville