November is Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month.
Many people do not truly understand the symptoms and causes of this disease. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's is "a brain disease that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior". It is a form of dementia, which is the term used for loss in memory and difficulties with one's daily life resulting from loss of intellectual abilities. In fact, Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 50 - 70% of the cases. Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
As the "baby boomer" generation becomes older, it is important for the next generation to understand this difficult and often heartbreaking disease, so that we can provide care for our parents, grandparents and work to prevent and treat this disease as we age.
What is Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's Disease is a condition that occurs when the cells in the brain lose their ability to work properly and eventually die, causing damage and changes in the brain. There are two structures, called "plaques" and "tangles" that have a role in causing this damage. It is normal for most people to develop some of these structures as they age, but in those with Alzheimer's Disease, they develop far more. This damage causes the memory and personality changes as well as difficulties making decisions and carrying out daily activities.
Alzheimer's disease is scary and heartbreaking for both the older adult, as well as their family. Early intervention is an important key to slowing the progression of the disease. There are also many erroneous belief about Alzheimer's. A few are:
1. "I forgot where I put my car keys, I must be getting Alzheimer's" - Just because someone is having memory problems, does NOT mean that have Alzheimer's. In fact, there are many different types of memory loss, and many different causes. A doctor can help rule out other types of memory loss.
2. "My father is 78, is he going to get Alzheimer's?" - It is important to know that Alzheimer's is NOT a normal part of aging. In spite of the fact that the majority of people who suffer from Alzheimer's are over 65 (early onset Alzheimer's can develop as early as someone in their 40s or 50s), it is not inevitable. (and by the way, it's not contagious!).
3. "I want to cure my mother's Alzheimer's Disease" - At the present time, there is no cure for Alzheimer's Disease. It is a progressive disease, and symptoms generally become worse over the years. The length of survival can be between 3 to 20 years, but the average is 8 years from the time their symptoms become noticeable to others. There are treatments that can temporarily slow the progression of symptoms, such as a medication called Aricept.
The Alzheimer's Association's website discusses 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer's (adapted from http://www.alz.org/):
1. Memory problems that affect daily functioning.
2. Difficulty with problem solving skills and concentration.
3. Problems with completing simple, familiar tasks, such as driving to the store or playing a game.
4. Losing track of times and places.
5. Trouble with distance, reading or other visual problems.
6. Difficulty following a conversation or remembering a word (or calling something by the wrong name).
7. Losing items and having difficulty locating them. Sometimes, they may accuse others of taking their belongings.
8. Poor judgement or difficulty with decision making.
9. Avoiding social situations or having trouble keeping up (not remembering who won the Eagle's game, for example).
10. Mood and personality changes, as well as depression, confusion or anxiety.
If you or a loved one is suffering from memory loss, and you suspect Alzheimer's, ASK YOUR DOCTOR OR ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST. Help is available and you do not need to suffer alone.
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