By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
Alzheimer’s disease occurs when changes in the brain methodically stunt and slow down memory and cognitive thinking. It’s associated with those in their senior years and it often worsens with time.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, a continuous decline in thinking, behavioral and social skills that disrupts a person’s ability to function independently.
With any disease it is essential to know as much information as possible.
“We have come a long way since I started working in the Alzheimer’s and dementia field where it was viewed as a scarlet letter and a hidden secret. However, now more people know and understand the diagnosis and that way we can get the family all the information they need to begin helping their loved ones,” said Mary Koenig, administrator at the Heritage in Syracuse, one of the largest providers of Alzheimer’s and dementia care, offering the first residential program in Central New York created especially for affected individuals. Heritage is part of Loretto, CNY’s largest nonprofit providing services for seniors.
Koenig discusses five key things people should know about the disese.
One of the key indicators of Alzheimer’s is memory loss. While we all have moments of forgetfulness, what makes this different is the recurring aspect along with the sudden decrease of short-term memory.
“It is drastically different from regular memory loss where you can’t find your keys or you temporarily blank out on a person’s last name,” said Koenig. “You are now forgetting major events and important dates where it is now disrupting your life. You are starting to exercise poor judgement, putting milk in the cupboard or truly having difficulty finding the right words in conversation. My father had Alzheimer’s and that last symptom was one of the first noticeable signs.”
2. There is no cure but there are solutions
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institute of Aging. More than five million Americans live with the disease. By 2050, the number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million. In the early stage of Alzheimer’s, a person may function independently, according to the Alzheimer Association. He or she may still drive, work and be part of social activities. Middle-stage Alzheimer’s is typically the longest stage and can last for many years. As the disease progresses, the person with Alzheimer’s will require a greater level of care. In the final stage of the disease, dementia symptoms are severe. Individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, to carry on a conversation and, eventually, to control movement. While there is no cure, the situation is not hopeless.
“There have been research and studies that show everything you do for your heart such as physical activity and giving up smoking can have a positive impact on the brain,” said Koenig.
3. Support is essential
Because Alzheimer’s targets the mental health of an individual, it can cause layers of difficulties for those battling through it. That is why it is important to have a close support system.
“Without family support, there are fewer options on how to handle care,” Koenig said. “When someone gets diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, caring for them can be a 24-hour job which is mentally and physically exhausting. You have to get everyone on the same page so they can have all the resources they need and put together a plan of caring. Sometimes you need multiple family and friends to take over different aspects from the financial side to the emotional side of the situation.”
Heritage has a 79-bed facility that can help those suffering from Alzheimer’s as another option for families.
4. There are numerous myths about the disease
Medical officials believe one of the reasons that Alzheimer’s gets diagnosed later than it should is because people just see memory loss as part of getting older. They equate it in the same manner as arthritis, back pain or diminished eyesight. Koenig believes that is why too often the correct diagnosis comes late because either the individual or physician doesn’t connect the dots earlier.
“I read an interesting article that says if someone goes to the doctor and says they are having trouble remembering things, oftentimes the diagnosis ends up being depression,” she added. “It’s sometimes harder for the person who is experiencing the symptoms to see it and have an honest discussion with themselves.”
Another myth is that it only affects older citizens.
“200,000 people under the age of 65 have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and we are seeing more people in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” said Koenig.
5. Early detection tests are available
For years, medical experts have been hoping to find new ways to predict someone’s ability to get Alzheimer’s. Recently, researchers found that a combination of brain PET scans and spinal fluid tests can help discover the disease as many as two decades before it occurs. While that doesn’t mean anything is reversible, when early detection occurs it can help any medical treatment. Experts say the new discovery could lead to testing of new drugs and creative treatment options. While it is optimistic, it remains early.
“There are some people who might say why would you want to know ahead of time but there are various reasons why that would be a good decision. After you get past the initial shock, there are decisions you want to make about your life,” said Koenig.” It also gives you the possibility of being part of a clinical trial or experimental drugs because your symptoms are not severe and advanced.