What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease is a type of dementia characterized by the build-up of tau proteins in the brain. Eventually, the patient will experience a loss of connections between brain neurons. After this happens, other parts of the brain become affected and these parts of the brain begin losing connections, too. This process of degeneration causes the brain tissue to shrink in size. There are three stages of Alzheimer’s Disease: Mild, Moderate and Severe.
Who does Alzheimer’s Disease affect?
Alzheimer’s usually affects adults around the age of 65, although African-American and Hispanic women are most at risk for developing the disease. Women as a whole are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease as men. The CDC estimates that 5.8 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by the age of 65. Early intervention may be key-research suggests that early symptoms can occur up to ten years before an official diagnosis.
Early intervention will not prevent Alzheimer’s Disease but could lead to early intervention of other health risks like diabetes and heart disease that increase a patient’s risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.
What are the signs of Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease deteriorates the parts of the brain that are dedicated to memory formation such as the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, so symptoms that are commonly associated with the disease include memory loss and cognitive impairment. However, it can be hard to tell the difference between Alzheimer’s symptoms and normal cognitive decline that is caused by age.
In order to tell the difference between cognitive declines caused by Alzheimer’s Disease and normal cognitive declines caused by age, the Alzheimer’s Association developed 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. Warning signs include:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in Planning or Solving Problems
- Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks at Home, at Work or at Leisure
- Confusion with Time or Place
- Trouble Understanding Visual Images and Spatial Relationships
- New Problems with Words in Speaking or Writing
- Misplacing Things and Losing the Ability to Retrace Steps
- Decreased or Poor Judgement
- Withdrawal from Work or Social Activities
- Changes in Mood and Personality
Click here to view the full PDF assembled by the Alzheimer’s Association. The CDC recommends a patient follow up with their primary care provider if they have experienced one or more symptoms because early intervention is key for successful treatment.
How do you get diagnosed?
Your primary care provider can perform a cognitive assessment to determine the presence and severity of Alzheimer’s Disease. Testing can range from around 5-20 minutes.
What treatment options are available?
Alzheimer’s Disease does not have a cure. The most common treatments are medication and behavioral therapy, both of which are discussed briefly below.
Medications will not slow the progression of the disease as a whole because medication cannot re-build neuron connections. However, medication may help alleviate individual symptoms for a short period of time. Be sure to speak with your primary care provider regarding FDA approved, available medication options.
Behavioral therapy may also be beneficial to your loved one. Dealing with the self-identified sudden and drastic changes to one’s life caused by Alzheimer’s Disease can be difficult and isolating. Consider how difficult it must be for your loved one to move out of their family home into a nursing home, for example, or to adjust to an in-home care provider. Your loved one may find comfort in therapy to assist with their adjustment to a new routine. Therapy may also assist your loved one as they navigate through sudden sleep changes or a loss of physical motion. Therapy exercises like scheduled meals, physical therapy activities and scheduled electronics use are helpful to retain memory and functioning. Again, be sure to speak with your primary care provider before trying medication or therapies.
What do I do long-term?
Many people who are diagnosed with early-term Alzheimer’s Disease are able to continue taking care of themselves as they otherwise normally would. Remember: early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s allows for the opportunity to discuss the long-term legal, financial and social decisions as a family unit. Encourage your loved one to attend their primary care appointments on a regular basis, and encourage them to enroll in Chronic Care Management for additional support. Your loved one’s primary care provider will work with the patient and the social worker to decide if and when your loved one needs additional services such as home healthcare, assisted living or nursing facilities, Area on Aging services or hospitalization.
Early intervention seems scary! However, having difficult conversations early on means that you will not be solely responsible for making huge, life-changing medical or financial decisions for your loved one.
Help your family member consider their legal options. Your local Area on Aging has a legal assistance program that can provide education on Advanced Directives, living wills and power of attorney.
Resources for Patients and Caregivers
The good news is that there are a lot of resources for patients and caregivers about Alzheimers Disease. A great place to start is with the Alzheimer’s Association because they have regional chapters across the state of Georgia. Check in with your local chapter to find out about social programs for those with early-stage Alzheimer’s Disease, family and patient support groups, resource packets, referral processes and more.
There is a chapter of the Georgia Alzheimer’s Association that is located in Augusta, Georgia. The Columbia County division is located at 106 SRP Drive, Suite A, Evans GA 30809. The Columbia County division offers separate support groups for patients and caregivers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you would like to begin attending, call Beth Williams at 706-860-5233.
There is also a chapter of the Georgia Alzheimer’s Association in Macon, Georgia. The Macon division is located at 886 Mulberry St, Macon Ga 31201. If you would like to get involved, please call 478-746-7050.