Alzheimer disease is a type of dementia. Dementia is a condition in which cognitive function—the ability to think, concentrate, and remember—is impaired. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer disease makes up as much as 60% to 80% of all cases of dementia.
Alzheimer disease is a progressive condition. This means that it keeps getting worse. It usually involves memory impairment early on. Eventually, people with Alzheimer disease need help with daily activities because they lose the ability to dress, bathe, and feed themselves.
The role of Alzheimer caregivers can be stressful, frightening, and exhausting. But you can also feel great comfort in caring for a loved one who needs you.
Facts about Alzheimer disease
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) says that, although Alzheimer disease usually affects people older than age 65, it’s not a normal part of aging. Some people develop early onset Alzheimer disease, which strikes as early as age 40.
People with Alzheimer 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 disease has no cure, but some medicines can help to slow the damage it does to the brain and the progression of symptoms. Although most people live an average of 8 years after their symptoms become obvious, others can live with it for as long as 20 years.
At first, the symptoms of Alzheimer disease may be subtle and dismissed as simple forgetfulness, the Alzheimer's Association says. But over time they get worse. Here are common symptoms of Alzheimer 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, like 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, often showing poor judgment
Becoming more isolated and spending less time with family and friends
Having emotional outbursts or reacting inappropriately in some situations
May lead to hallucinations or delusions, including paranoid ideation
A healthcare provider can presumptively diagnose Alzheimer disease by asking questions about symptoms and performing a few tests. These tests can include:
Medical history and review of all current medicines
Review of any family history of dementia and Alzheimer 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 (sometimes, more detailed neuropsychological testing is done)
Physical exam, including a neurological exam, to look for other causes of symptoms
MRI scan of the brain
PET scan (with a new tracer agent)
Researchers are learning about genetic tests that can be done to predict if a person will get Alzheimer disease, the NIA says. These tests are used mainly for research. They can’t reliably tell if a person will get the disease. In some familial types, certain tests might be of some benefit.
The NIA says that while several drugs are available to help slow and manage the symptoms of Alzheimer disease, no medicines can cure it. These are commonly prescribed medicines:
Cholinesterase inhibitors, like donepezil
Although these 2 types of drugs work differently, they both affect chemicals in the brain related to memory and learning. Some patients respond very well to these medicines. Some do not. The improvement with these medicines will usually last for 6 to 18 months.
When you're a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer disease, you can help make sure that your loved one does things to stay as emotionally and physically healthy as possible. According to the Alzheimer's Association, a person with Alzheimer disease needs to:
Learn how to manage and understand his or her 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 medicines prescribed by the healthcare provider
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 healthcare provider's appointments
Planning for long-term care (like a nursing home or special memory care unit) when it becomes necessary
As you care for someone with Alzheimer disease, keep these things in mind:
It's important to take care of yourself. Stay healthy and ask for help from others when you need it.
Be kind, slow, concise, and clear when communicating with someone with Alzheimer disease.
Alzheimer disease can cause anger, hostility, violence, and wandering away, and you will need to be prepared to deal with these situations.
A time will come when it's no longer safe for a person with Alzheimer disease to drive, and you'll need to have a difficult conversation about giving up the keys.
Experts don't know how to prevent Alzheimer disease because they don't know exactly what causes it. But "exercising" your brain by learning new things and challenging yourself may help to keep your brain sharper. A healthy diet and plenty of regular exercise is also thought to help keep your brain healthy.
Alzheimer disease can be devastating for the person who has it, family members, and other caregivers. You can get more information, including finding support groups, through the Alzheimer's Association.