By Dr. Peter Klapper Ph.D.
The thought of aging can be scary for a lot of people, especially when it comes to your brain and memory. Our brains are powerful yet sensitive organs that even the slightest change can cause a new ailment to appear – such as dementia. At some point in your life, you probably have known someone who suffers from some form of dementia and have seen firsthand how it can affect even the brightest individual.
Sadly, more than 55 million people are living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, so it’s important to be aware of the risk factors, signs and symptoms, and how you can potentially combat this cruel disease.
June is “Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month” which is why we want to share this guide with you.
Dementia vs Alzheimer’s
You have probably heard the terms, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, tossed around when describing an elderly loved-one who may have trouble remembering various details or seems confused. So, what’s the difference between the two?
Well, first, it’s important to know that dementia isn’t a single disease. It’s an umbrella term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. There are multiple forms of dementia that include Alzheimer’s, Vascular, Lewy Body, Frontotemporal and Huntington’s Disease. In some cases, someone can also suffer from “mixed dementia,” which is the symptoms of dementia from more than one cause.
These various forms of dementia are caused by abnormal brain changes and brain damage that results in declined thinking skills and cognitive abilities that can impact someone’s life and ability to function independently.
As far as Alzheimer’s disease goes, high levels of specific proteins inside and outside of brain cells make it hard for them to stay healthy and communicate with one another. In the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, is typically where brain cells are often first known to be damaged. Therefore, memory loss tends to be one of the earliest symptoms.
What Are the Risk Factors?
If Alzheimer’s disease can come as a result of brain damage and not necessarily just getting older, how do you know if you’re at risk?
Well, first off, we hate to say it, but age is still a factor. Most people are more at risk after the age of 65. In fact 80 percent of those living with Alzheimer’s disease are 75 years and older, but it’s important to know that age isn’t completely a deciding factor.
You’re also more likely to be at risk if you have family history associated with the disease, are female, have had a head injury, experience high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.
Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s
Now that you’re aware that Alzheimer’s causes a slow decline in the memory and thinking skills, how can you look out for the warning signs? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, these are the warning sings to look out for if you’re concerned.
As we discussed above, memory loss that affects daily life tends to be the first warning sign. That tends to look like forgetting simple information such as important dates and events, repeating the same questions frequently and needing more support to handle relatively easy tasks.
Problem solving can become a problem when the individual experiencing a cognitive delay can no longer follow a plan or solve basic problems, like budgeting their finances. It may be a sign of Alzheimer’s when they are no longer able to concentrate for long periods and can’t complete a task after reading directions.
Yes, as we get older, confusion can happen, but when is it a problem? With Alzheimer’s, it’s concerning if a person becomes confused on how they may have arrived to a certain place, or are confused by the time of year, etc.
If someone is developing Alzheimer’s, they may have trouble becoming engaged in a conversation. You might notice that they begin to ramble, struggle with basic vocabulary, or have a hard time remembering the name of a common object or family member.
As the memory declines, so does the ability to recall where you may have placed a common household object. A warning sign typically is when the individual has set an object down and can’t go back through their memory on how to trace it. This can sometimes result in the individual making accusations of theft as the disease progresses.
Poor Decision Making
You may notice that someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s begins to make poor judgement calls, such as neglecting to clean themselves and their house, leaves out groceries that need to be refrigerated, etc.
And sadly, personality changes. Someone suffering from Alzheimer’s may begin to act confused, paranoid, suspicious and anxious. Especially when they are pulled away from their comfort zone.
(Note: If you have noticed any of the above in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to notify your doctor as soon as possible.)
How To Fight It
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are treatments that can change the disease’s progression and that treat symptoms. Therefore, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as you notice something cognitively “off.”
However, it doesn’t hurt to start working to stay mentally and socially active now to keep your brain working. By taking care of and challenging our brain and memory, you can potentially slow the rate of dementia.
Family And Support
Nothing is harder than watching a family member become something besides what they once were prior to Alzheimer’s decline. Many family members find themselves grieving and mourning, which is completely okay. If you do find yourself in this situation, be sure to take care of yourself while being there for your loved-one. There are many support groups to help through this difficult time.
If you believe that a loved-one is showing symptoms, do your research before approaching them. Make sure that you have eliminated any other possible health conditions that can cause memory loss.
If you have narrowed down that the confusion is coming from Alzheimer’s, try to approach it in a loving manner and find a place to address it where the individual feels comfortable. Also, think about offering to go to the doctor with them as another form of support.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are very difficult to cope with for everyone involved, so know that you’re not alone. For more information on Alzheimer’s and how to cope, click here.
By Dr. Peter Klapper Ph.D.