November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, a good time to learn more about the disease and how to care for someone living with the disease. Alzheimer’s affects approximately one in every two families, and chances are we all know someone living with the disease — be it a family member, friend or co-worker. Because Alzheimer’s is so widespread, it’s worth learning more about the disease in order to understand how it presents itself in those affected, as well as understanding how to manage and cope with the disease.
Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but it’s expected to move up that list at a quick clip. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2015 an estimated 5.1 million Americans age 65 and older were living with Alzheimer's, and this number is predicted to increase to 7.1 million by 2025.
Alzheimer’s is a confusing disease and there are many misconceptions surrounding it. Alzheimer's is not dementia and dementia is not Alzheimer's. People often use the terms interchangeably, but dementia is not a disease — it’s a clinical symptom and Alzheimer's can be the cause of that symptom. Alzheimer's is atrophy or degeneration of a part (or several parts) of the brain, resulting in a decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills.
As of today, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s. There is no medication or treatment that can prevent or slow the progression of the disease. That said, the science and medical fields have made great strides in their research and clinical testing. Scientists have learned that age, family history and genetics are all risk factors for Alzheimer’s. Other risk factors may include diabetes, head injuries, smoking, poor diet and isolation.
If you meet these criteria, you may have a predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease, and if you find yourself or a family member showing signs of memory impairment, consult your doctor. As you age, your doctor may use a checklist of warning signs of Alzheimer's to screen you for the disease. And a concerned loved one may be able to point out any red flags using the following screening questions:
• Do you show poor judgment and decision-making?
• Do you have trouble managing your household budget?
• Do you lose track of the date or the season?
• Do you have difficulty having or maintaining a conversation?
• Do you misplace things and find you are unable to retrace your steps to find them?
If you are 65 or older and can answer yes to one or more of these questions, call your doctor and schedule an appointment. We can all have “senior moments” at times and forget details like names and dates, but these normal, age-related cognitive slips are not the same as Alzheimer’s symptoms. For a person with Alzheimer’s, the struggle to remember or recall things is recurring and becomes overwhelming and stressful.
While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s at present, with early detection, you may be able to take advantage of treatments that may provide relief from symptoms and help you maintain your independence longer. It also can give you time to prepare for future considerations such as living options, financial and legal matters, as well as decisions about your future care. This is the time to make sure you have discussed your wishes with someone and appointed a healthcare proxy with the proper documentation.
Caring for a person with Alzheimer's can be stressful, but developing a strong support system of family and friends can ease your stress. I also encourage you to seek out knowledgeable counselors and speakers: call the Alzheimer’s Association at their toll-free number 1-800-272-3900 to find a support group near you, or contact a local assisted living facility that may offer regularly scheduled support group meetings and expert guest lectures. These forums are open to the public and generally focus on the caregiver, providing tips for how to live and cope with someone with this disease. I urge to you attend these free opportunities as the more we know about the disease, the better we can cope with caring for our loved ones affected by Alzheimer’s.
— Gail Infurna, R.N., is a Clinical Liaison at Wingate at Reading. She is also the alderman for Ward 5 in Melrose. Infurna discusses health issues in her recurring "To Your Health” columns, printed exclusively in the Melrose Free Press and Reading Advocate. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.