Alzheimer's Disease is the most common cause of dementia. It is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly damages memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out everyday tasks. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's Disease accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases. Anyone can get Alzheimer's Disease, but certain people are at higher risk for it, like those who are 65 and older, and people with a family history of Alzheimer's. In most cases, people with Alzheimer's Disease get diagnosed after age 65, but if diagnosed before the age of 65, that is called early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but treatments can slow the disease's progression. Every September, during World Alzheimer's Month, we want to help raise awareness of the warning signs, educate on how to reduce risk, and share helpful tips for caregivers during COVID-19.
Warning Signs of Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's symptoms come on gradually, and the effects on the brain are progressive, causing a slow decline. We know memory often changes as people grow older. But memory loss that disrupts daily life is not a normal part of aging. Friends and family are usually the first to see changes in a loved one's memory, behavior, or ability. At the same time, others notice changes in themselves before anyone else. If you notice one or more of these warning signs, it's time to see a neurologist. Early diagnosis can give you and your loved one a chance to seek treatment and plan for the future.
1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or leisure
4. Confusion with time or place
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relations
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
8. Decreased or poor judgment
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
10. Changes in mood and personality
Alzheimer's Disease can be found in the early stages; that's why awareness of the warning signs is vital. If you or someone you know is experiencing memory or thinking problems, it is important to share these concerns with a neurologist. Effective communication with a specialist is essential when you are seeking a diagnosis for memory loss. Be sure to ask questions, be prepared to answer questions, and be as honest as possible.
How to Love Your Brain
The general rule is what's good for the heart is good for the brain, so both should be well looked after with a balanced diet and regular physical and mental exercise. Much of what's needed are simple activities you can include in your day to day life. Remember, it's never too late to make any of these changes. Below are five ways you can help to reduce your risk of developing dementia:
1.) Look after your heart. Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity all damage the blood vessels and increase the risk of having a stroke or a heart attack, contributing to dementia development later. These problems can be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices and should be treated effectively if they do occur.
2.) Be physically active. Physical activity and exercise are powerful preventive medicines that help control your blood pressure and weight and reduce the risk of type II diabetes and some forms of cancer. There is also some evidence to suggest that some kinds of physical activity can reduce the risk of developing dementia. The good news is that getting active is proven to make us feel good and is a great activity to do with friends and family.
3.) Follow a healthy diet. Food is fuel for both the brain and body. We can help both to function properly by eating a healthy, balanced diet. Some evidence suggests that a Mediterranean-type diet, rich in whole grains, fruits, fish, legumes, and vegetables, can help reduce the risk of dementia. While more studies are needed on the benefits of specific foods or supplements, we know that eating lots of high in saturated fat, sugar, and/or salt is associated with a higher risk of heart disease and is best avoided.
4.) Challenge your brain. By challenging the brain with new activities, you can help build new brain neurons and strengthen their connections. This may counter the harmful effects of Alzheimer's disease and other dementia pathologies. By challenging your brain, you can learn some great new things. So how about learning a new language or taking up a new hobby?
5.) Enjoy social activities. Social activities may be beneficial to brain health because they stimulate our brain reserves, reducing our risk of dementia and depression. Try and make time for friends and family. You can even combine your activities with physical and mental exercise through sport or other hobbies.
COVID-19: Tips for Dementia Caregivers
Most likely, dementia does not increase the risk for COVID-19, just like dementia does not increase the risk for flu. However, dementia-related behaviors, age, and common health conditions that often accompany dementia may increase your risk. For example, people with Alzheimer's disease and all other dementia may forget to wash their hands or take other recommended precautions to prevent illness. Also, conditions like COVID-19 and the flu may worsen cognitive impairment due to dementia.
Caregiving can have positive aspects for the caregiver as well as the person being cared for. It may bring personal fulfillment to the caregiver, such as satisfaction from helping a family member or friend, and lead to the development of new skills and improved family relationships.
Although most people willingly provide care to their loved ones and friends, caring for a person with Alzheimer's disease at home can be difficult and might become overwhelming. Each day brings new challenges as the caregiver copes with changing ability levels and new patterns of behavior. As the disease gets worse, people living with Alzheimer's disease often need more intensive care. When it comes to caring for someone with Alzheimer's or dementia during the coronavirus pandemic, caregivers should follow CDC guidelines and consider the following tips:
• For people living with dementia, increased confusion is often the first symptom of any illness. If a person living with dementia shows rapidly increased confusion, contact your health care provider for advice. Unless the person is having difficulty breathing or a very high fever, it is recommended that you call your health care provider instead of going directly to an emergency room. Your doctor may be able to treat the person without a visit to the hospital.
• People living with dementia may need extra and/or written reminders and support to remember important hygienic practices from one day to the next.
• Consider placing signs in the bathroom and elsewhere to remind people with dementia to wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds.
• Demonstrate thorough handwashing.
• Alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can be a quick alternative to handwashing if the person with dementia cannot get to a sink or wash his/her hands easily.
• Ask your pharmacist or doctor about filling prescriptions for a more extended period to reduce pharmacy trips.
• Think ahead and make alternative plans for the person with dementia should adult daycare, respite, etc. be modified or canceled in response to COVID-19.
• Think ahead and make alternative plans for care management if the primary caregiver should become sick.
CapitalCare Neurology, located at the 2125 River Road Health Park in Niskayuna, specializes in nerves and the nervous system and treats Alzheimer's Disease and other dementias. We are happy to welcome two new advanced practitioners to the team, Perri Clifford, PA-C, and Stephanie Quandt, FNP-C. Along with our neurologists, Dr. Naseer Chowdhrey and Dr. Jamshaid Minhas, our team at CapitalCare Neurology is ready to care for patients five years and older. If you would like to schedule an appointment, call (518) 381-1800.