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Alzheimer's Advanced - Coping & Understanding
Alzheimer's disease causes /la decline in the mental functions that control memory, thinking, language, personality, and behavior. Collectively, these symptoms are referred to as "dementia." Alzheimer's usually affects people age 65 and older. In fact, about 1 in every 10 people over 65 is diagnosed with this disease, and for every 10 years of life after age 65, the chances of developing it doubles. Between 5% and 10% of people with Alzheimer's have a family history of the disease, and begin to show signs of it earlier in life.
Alzheimer's results from certain chemical and structural changes that occur in the brain tissue of some people as they age. There is a loss of nerve cells (called "neurons) in the areas of the brain that are vital to memory and other abilities. There is also a reduction of the chemical "messengers" that carry complex information back and forth between neurons, thereby disrupting normal thinking and memory.
If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, or you suspect that you may be in the early stages of the disease, the information presented here will be useful to you. It covers symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment; explains what to expect as the disease progresses; and offers suggestions for accessing support services and other resources in your area.
The early symptoms
The symptoms of Alzheimer's vary from person to person and change as the disease progresses. While almost everyone experiences some memory loss as they age, the forgetfulness that occurs in the early stages of Alzheimer's tends to be more severe. Forgetting people's names or the location of familiar items is typical. The attention span becomes shorter and concentration becomes more difficult. As the disease progresses, memory loss increases, and there may be difficulty understanding written material. The person may start to displace or lose valuable objects and forget important recent events and personal history. Short-term memory is usually severely affected. Not surprisingly, people having these symptoms may experience feelings of depression and anxiety.
How Alzheimer's is diagnosed
While there is no diagnostic test for Alzheimer's disease, doctors can determine the likelihood of someone's having it in 80% to 90% of cases. This is accomplished with a physical exam; a thorough evaluation of symptoms and general health history; and memory testing for attention span, counting, problem solving, and language. The doctor will ask about any problems the person is having with daily activities, and may want to speak with their family or friends to get more information. Additional tools to help in the diagnosis include blood tests and brain scans to determine whether there may be another reason for the decline in brain function that can be treated.
How Alzheimer's is treated
Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, and although research is ongoing, there is no cure at this time. There are, however, things that can be done to help preserve mental and physical function as much and for as long as possible. Overall general physical health is very important. This includes good nutrition, regular exercise, and appropriate activities. Certain medications, taken in the early stages of the disease, may be helpful in slowing memory loss. There are also medications available that can help control the symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. Discuss these options, along with any other questions you may have, with your doctor.
Can Alzheimer's be prevented?
At this time, there are no known ways to prevent Alzheimer's. But recent advances in our understanding of how the disease works raise hopes that a cure and a means of prevention can be developed. In the meantime, people with a family history of Alzheimer's should be checked by their doctor on a regular basis. Early diagnosis will allow those who are affected to take advantage of future medical advances as they become available.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer's
In most cases, spouses or family members provide the day-to-day care for the person with Alzheimer's. As the disease progresses, this can become more and more difficult and may affect caregivers' physical and mental health, family life, jobs, and finances.
Resources and services to help families cope with Alzheimer's and its effects are probably available in your community. You can arrange for various support services through your doctor's office or through your local county health department or visiting nurses association.
Social workers will work with patients and family members to identify and coordinate services. Home health care agencies provide the services of nurses, medical social workers, physical and occupational therapists, and home health aides. Out-of-home services include adult day care centers, mental health services (including support groups for patients and family caregivers), transportation, and nursing homes.
It is important that the person with Alzheimer's participate in decision-making about his or her care while this is still possible. Being involved in this way can help reduce feelings of anxiety about the future and provide reassurance that his or her preferences are being acknowledged and respected.
Caring for the caregiver
A delicate balance must be maintained between the needs of the person with Alzheimer's and the needs of caregivers-spouses, friends, and family-who should join support groups as soon as possible after diagnosis of the disease. Caregivers will become emotionally drained and physically exhausted when there is nowhere to turn for help or support.
For further information on coping with this disease, the Alzheimer's Association has chapters nationwide that provide educational programs and support groups for caregivers and family members. For more information, contact the Alzheimer's Association's national offices at 1 (800) 272-2900.