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What is Alzheimer's disease?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The U.S. population is getting older, and as it ages, Alzheimer's is becoming an increasingly bigger concern. Within the next 50 years, the incidence of Alzheimer's is expected to quadruple, affecting one in 45 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is currently the fifth leading cause of death in adults over the age of 65.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, the loss of brain function, among older people. Alzheimer's disease is not an immediate decline into forgetfulness. Instead, it is a progressive weakening of cognitive function that erodes memory and reduces the ability to perform tasks over a period of several years.

Several factors contribute to the development of Alzheimer's disease. Family history is just one of them. Weight and general health also are key factors. The high insulin levels seen in obese people may mean an increased risk of Alzheimer's. People with diabetes are also at a particularly high risk.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's include problems with memory, judgment and thinking, which makes it difficult to take part in day-to-day life. As the disease progresses, memory loss and other signs of Alzheimer's become more apparent.

Leisure activities such as reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing can help reduced or delay the risk of dementia.

If you suspect a loved one may be in the early stages of Alzheimer's, consider these seven warning signs:

1. Asking the same question over and over again.

2. Repeating the same story, word for word, again and again.

3. Forgetting how to do activities that were previously done with ease and regularity.

4. Losing one's ability to pay bills or balance one's checkbook.

5. Getting lost in familiar surroundings, or misplacing household objects.

6. Neglecting to bathe, or wearing the same clothes over and over again, while insisting that they have taken a bath or that their clothes are still clean.

7. Relying on someone else, such as a spouse, to make decisions or answer questions they previously would have handled themselves.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's. However, Alzheimer's therapy involves a number of different treatments that address the symptoms. Because symptoms change over time, doctors need to adjust their Alzheimer's patients' therapies as new problems emerge.

There is some evidence that sensory therapies such as music therapy and art therapy can improve Alzheimer's patients' mood, behavior and day-to-day function. By stimulating the senses, these therapies may help trigger memory recall and enable Alzheimer's patients to reconnect with the world around them.

Lifestyle changes may also help to slow cognitive decline. For example, physical activity should be continued for as long as possible. Exercise promotes a normal day-and-night routine and may help to improve mood and reduces complications related to inactivity. Repetitive exercises -- such as walking, indoor bicycling, and activities such as folding laundry -- may decrease anxiety because they don't have to make decisions about the activity or remember what to do next.

While exercise does not stop Alzheimer's disease from progressing, most receive emotional satisfaction in feeling they have accomplished something.

Caregivers

If you care for a loved one living with Alzheimer's, or some form of dementia, you are their caregiver. While many patients retain their independence for a period of time after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, some may need additional help with performing daily activities.

The role you have taken on is not an easy one. However, the following tips offer some guidance on how to maintain and improve your caregiving relationship:

Take time for yourself. Make sure you have time to relax. Enlist the help of other family members or even hire someone to give you a break.

Learn as much as you can about your loved one's disease so you will know how you can help. You'll also understand what changes to expect in your loved one's behavior or symptoms.

Help your loved one participate in as many activities in the home and outside the home as possible. Allow the patient the time needed to complete daily activities on his or her own, such as dressing.

Consult your loved one about his or her family affairs. Although it's not easy to discuss these topics, you should be informed of your loved one's wishes regarding a living will, durable power of attorney and do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order.

Do not put your life on hold. Continue to meet with friends, participate in hobbies or groups, and maintain a schedule as normally as possible. You will feel more energized and are less likely to feel resentful in the long run.

Have someone you can talk to. You are there for your loved one -- to listen and to offer support -- but you also need a support person. Talk openly and honestly with a friend or family member. If this is not possible, join a support group. Understanding that you are not alone and that someone else is in a similar situation helps you to feel nurtured.

The most effective caregiver is well informed, prepared, and asks for help and support from all resources that are available.

Dr. Lisa Martin is an Internal Medicine physician with Putnam Pediatrics and Internal Medicine inside Putnam County Hospital. For more information about the disease, you may contact the office, at 658-2700, or your primary care physician. An Alzheimer's Caregiver Support Group is held the second Thursday of every month at 4:00 pm in the Hospital Classrooms. For more information about the group, contact Cindy Little at 653-3076.