Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia. Dementia is a condition in which cognitive function—the ability to think, concentrate, and remember—is impaired. Alzheimer's disease makes up as much as 70 percent of all cases of dementia.
Alzheimer's is a progressive condition, which means that it keeps getting worse. Eventually, people with Alzheimer's disease need help with daily activities because they lose the ability to dress, bathe, and feed themselves.
The role of Alzheimer's caregivers can be stressful, frightening, and exhausting, but you can feel great comfort in caring for a loved one who needs you.
Facts about Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's disease usually affects people older than age 65, but it’s not a normal part of aging. Some people develop early onset Alzheimer's disease, which strikes as early as age 40.
People with Alzheimer's disease often have trouble remembering things—at first, it may be something as small as the date or day of the week. Later, as the disease progresses, they may not recognize their loved ones.
Alzheimer's disease has no cure, but some medications can help to slow the damage it does to the brain and the progression of symptoms. Although most people live an average of eight years after their symptoms become obvious, others can live with it for as long as 20 years.
At first, the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease may be subtle, and it's easy to dismiss them as simple forgetfulness. But over time they get worse. Here are common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease:
Frequently forgetting something you just learned
Difficulty concentrating and resolving problems on your own
Difficulty doing things you've always known how to do, such as driving to familiar places or using simple electronics like the TV remote
Obvious confusion about dates, the time of day, and even the time of year
Problems recognizing colors or reading
Difficulty with speech, words, and communicating with others
Losing items and not being able to remember where they are
Being careless with finances and personal hygiene
Becoming more isolated and spending less time with family and friends
Having emotional outbursts or reacting inappropriately in some situations
A doctor can diagnose Alzheimer's disease by asking questions about symptoms and performing a few tests. These tests can include:
Medical history and review of all current medications
Review of any family history of dementia and Alzheimer's disease
Mental status test, which uses standard questions to test a person's awareness, such as the date and time and simple instructions or lists of objects
Physical exam, including a neurological exam, to look for other causes of symptoms
MRI scan of the brain
PET scan, although this is mostly used for Alzheimer's disease research
Researchers are learning about genetic tests that can be done to predict if a person will get Alzheimer's disease. These tests are used mainly for research, however, because they can’t reliably tell if a person will get the disease.
Several drugs are available to help slow and manage the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, but no medications can cure it. These are commonly prescribed medications:
Cholinesterase inhibitors (Aricept, Razadyne, Cognex, Exelon)
Although these two types of drugs work differently, they both affect chemicals in the brain related to memory and learning.
When you're a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer's disease, you can help in many ways. A person with Alzheimer's disease needs to:
Learn how to manage and understand their diagnosis
Cope with fear and frustration as symptoms get worse
Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly
Get plenty of sleep
Limit alcohol intake
Take all medications prescribed by the doctor
As a caregiver, you can help to make sure that your loved one does these things to stay as emotionally and physically healthy as possible.
These are other tasks you might assist with:
Grocery shopping, cooking, and feeding
Bathing and getting dressed
Paying bills, picking up prescriptions, and driving to doctor's appointments
Planning for long-term care (such as a nursing home) when it becomes necessary