June 1, 2018

Dementia and Alzheimers: What I Need To Know


First, we better start with some basic definitions. 

Dementia is a group of symptoms that affects mental cognitive tasks such as memory and reasoning. Dementia is a wide-ranging term that covers all sorts of problems so there is no accurate number of how many seniors have the symptoms. Though certain diseases can trigger dementia, it is usually an age-related development as brain cells are damaged.

Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia. Roughly 5 million of those 65 and older have Alzheimer,'s or roughly 10% of the senior population. Alzheimer's is responsible for more than half of all cases of dementia.

The early symptoms of dementia can be mild and easily overlooked. It can begin with some episodes of  forgetfulness or losing track of time. I found an article with 10 early symptoms of dementia that you might want to review. 

As dementia gets worse, signs of forgetfulness and confusion grow. Names, faces, and dates may become more difficult to recall. Personal care starts to suffer as folks forget to bathe or shower. Repetitious questioning and problems with decision-making become more obvious.

In the most advanced stage, dementia sufferers become unable to care for themselves or communicate with others. Sometimes depression or aggressive behavior surfaces. Loss of bowel and bladder control along with swallowing issues can arise.


The speed at which someone with diagnosed dementia progresses from mild to severe stages is variable. It depends on the reason for the dementia as well as the person's genetic makeup. Unfortunately, while some medications and lifestyle changes can help, there is no cure. Eventually, full time care will be required. It is important to plan for what may come well before faced with a dire situation.

Alzheimer's, a type of dementia, is particularly feared because of its slow but steady erasing of someone's personality and awareness. Spouses, one's own children, family, friends, places and events can be lost. Here is a link to 10 early warning signs of Alzheimer's. The Alzheimer's organization has a powerful look at the extend of the disease and it's impact on us all.

I had no idea that Alzheimer's is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. Research continues to narrow the hunt for a cure or something that will halt its progress, but for now the disease worsens over time. Some medications will slow its progress but there is no cure. Someone diagnosed with Alzheimer's has a life expectancy of 4-8 years.

There are steps anyone can take to help lower the odds of dementia and Alzheimer's but they are not guaranteed to prevent future problems. Even so, it can't hurt if you follow the advice to exercise, get enough sleep, and eat a low fat diet. The theory that stimulating your brain with learning new things helps is unproven at the moment, but might turn out to be important. In the meantime, it can't hurt.

The only solid advice is to recognize the warning signs and changes in your (or a loved one's) behavior. Tests are available to confirm the diagnosis. If dementia or Alzheimer's are confirmed, you and your family can begin to make plans and adjust lifestyles to maximize the quality of one's remaining years. Support groups for both the patient and caregivers can be quite beneficial. 

Here is the link to a powerful story of dedication and love as a wife begins to lose herself to Alzheimer's: From diagnosis to the final stages. The power of human love is a force that cannot be denied. The video is unavailable unless you have CBS All Access, but the text is.

Dementia and Alzheimer's are scary. In a recent highly unscientific poll on this blog, 35% of the respondents said they worry a lot about these issues. 56% said they don't because we can't prevent them, nor can we cure them if we are affected. This the lack of control and a future of slowly diminishing capacity are unpleasant realities, so acceptance is the best route for this majority of people.

The best we can do if be on the lookout for signs of the condition and act to prepare ourselves and loved ones for what may lie ahead.


23 comments:

  1. Important and helpful information. I do think this is the primary kind of dementia that people think of but the other types can range from creating specific memory/problem solving problems such as vascular dementia to types that can be hard to diagnose like Lewy body dementia. My Mom had vascular dementia and while she could tell you all about the plot and characters of the most recent book she had read, remember conversations in detail, etc. she had no idea what day it was and couldn't read a traditional clock. The book that helped me most was The 36 Hour Day by Nancy Mace and published by the Johns Hopkins Press and now in a sixth edition. I found a website that defines many of the kinds of dementia - https://www.dementiasociety.org/definitions?gclid=EAIaIQobChMItbKH0r-y2wIVi7xkCh242QVnEAAYASAAEgIwmPD_BwE

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    1. The scariest aspect of this disease is how, at the moment, there is no cure and no real way if, or how severely, we might be affected. That unknown is quite unsettling.

      If there is good news is would be the number of people working on a cure, or at least something that can better manage the symptoms. Also, knowing what may lie ahead for both ourselves or someone we love is important.

      This was one of the subjects suggested when I asked for post ideas a few months ago. It isn't the happiest topic, but vital.

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  2. Thanks for addressing this issue Bob. You make the point that it is not just memory issues. There is a stereotype of the kind, pleasantly confused person who can't remember names or what day it is.

    I read an article recently that suggested we call dementia "Brain Failure". We all know what heart failure, respiratory failure is. And of course every system of our body is controlled by our brain. When dementia sets in, the brain is essentially dying, and therefore effecting every aspect of how we function day to day. Dementia is a progressive, fatal disease of the brain.

    I've had well meaning people ask me why I could no longer keep my husband at home to care for him. It was something I had hoped for and was certain that I could manage. But at some point it was no longer safe for either of us for him to remain at home.

    Caregiver support is crucial once dementia strikes. The emotional toll it takes on family and friends is just heartbreaking. Losing a little bit of your spouse every day prolongs the grieving process. The support from family, friends, support groups, counselors can be invaluable.

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    1. Thanks for raising the very important issue of caregiver support. While I can't speak from personal experience, I know that those who take care of someone with dementia or Alzheimer's have a very stressful and emotional draining job.

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  3. I believe many older Americans fear dementia more than they do many other physical ailments and diseases, and perhaps it is not an unfounded fear. We also need to be careful that we do not fret normal changes in our minds that occur over time, in some cases due to positive influences like too many life experiences to keep everything straight. I am thankful that it appears that dementia has not been an issue with either the Irish or the Lithuanian sides of my family, but who knows what can cause it to start in any particular family. Diet? Exposure to adverse chemicals and situations? Like most people I have no answers but will stay alert to any of the changes pointed out in the article when it comes to myself and loved ones. A timely article, Bob, but one as you rightfully pointed out does not have an easy resolution anytime in the near future.

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    1. I like you point that normal changes in the brain, our ability to remember names as quickly, or the name of that song by the Yardbirds, do not necessarily signal something more serious. We need to be aware but we can't live in fear of what may happen, since it may not.

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    2. Bob, it was "For Your Love" :)

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  4. I wrote about this while you were away. It's become a reality for me. I'm seeing the top docs and will find out later this month exactly what is going on in my head. It is frightening, to say the least, but I can't ignore it like many do. I need to know what's going on and be willing to try whatever is recommended. Here's the post: http://www.zeroto60andbeyond.com/dont-panic-this-is-just-fyi/

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    1. Well, no pity party as you instructed in your post, but sincere well wishes, love for you and Dave, and concerns. I had wondered why your blog had gone a long time with no updates.

      You are an important part of my blogging circle of friends, and you are a fighter. Maybe all this will be nothing. Maybe it will be something. But, the Barbara I know will tackle this like every other obstacle in your life.

      Everyone: go to Barbara's blog and read this post.

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    2. You are too kind, Bob. I do appreciate your support. Tomorrow I get a head MRI, just to see if there's something up there. ;) and next week I get the first results of my visit and tests. Hoping for the best! There are new drugs out there and I'm ready, willing, and able to try whatever they suggest or recommend. Thanks for the love! b

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  5. I brought my 92 year old father to live with me. He could no longer function in his independent living facility, even though he thinks he is capable. It is my intention to keep him with me as long as possible. I have been asking some professionals as to what factors would indicate the need for a transfer to memory care. They all say there is no specific criteria, and that "you will know when it is time."

    My dad goes through periods of contentment, followed by frustration and anger. He is well aware of his memory problems and realizes he is increasingly dependent on others. I am learning as I go about what to do and what not to do, with comfort and safety the primary objectives.

    I have always found that the periods of transition in my life were the most stressful and disturbing. This certainly true with my dad. He knows his memory is fading, and it creates considerable anxiety. Having full memory or having no memory would seemingly be easier than the in between state. But who knows?

    If we live long enough it is likely that most of us will suffer from some cognitive issues. I have taken steps to tip the odds in my favor (according to current research) but fate and luck loom large in the future. My heart goes out to all who struggle with this--as patients or as caregivers.

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. Well stated, Rick. I wish you and your dad the best. I'd agree: being stuck between full and no memory has to be the most agonizing spot to be in, for everyone involved.

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  6. My mom and four of her siblings had memory issues, or "IT" as my family called alzheimers. Yet, my grandmother, the mom of all of these children, had zero memory issues, and neither did her five siblings. Interestingly, my oldest uncle, who left the farm before DDT and other chemicals were used, had zero memory issues. He was the sole sibling of my mom who had all his marbles. The youngest sibling, my aunt, who was a mere child when DDT started being used on the farm, developed alzheimers the earliest, at age 67, and has had "it" for 13 years. I do not know if that is a coincidence, or related to the chemicals used on the crops. At any rate, I am 58, still working, but I will transfer everything to trusts for the kids soon, so no one fights over anything when I croak, and so I do not have to worry about memory issues later causing me to give everything to a scammer. Really, I am not that concerned at this point, but I want to prevent potential future issues. Plus, I really just wanna say outrageous things, wear funny clothes, and no one can do anything about it...oh, wait....I already do that....lol

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    1. Based on your comment I am pretty sure you already says and do wild things! Please don't plan on croaking anytime soon, though.

      Seriously, if there is any real concern about memory and dementia issues, taking care of financial and personal issues before it is too late is a good idea. Of course, everyone should be sure to have clear directives and protections in place regardless of any issue with dementia. Do so saves a lot of grief later.

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  7. My mother spent the last nine years of her life in a nursing home. She went there mainly for physical problems but also had dementia. At the beginning she was very distressed about her memory. As it got worse it became less upsetting to her. She had vivid memories of her youth and would happily tell me those stories. She continued reading books but could never tell me what they were about. She made friends at the nursing home and when one of them would die she would be very sad. Within a week she forgot who they were. She did not remember the recent vacations we took together. She forgot that my father had died. But until the end she always remembered who we were.
    And she continued to be a very good card player so parts of her brain were still working. They played other games there and one of them I really couldn't understand but she was good at it. So you have to go one day at a time and just love them like you always did and hope for the best.
    I don't have any regrets about putting her in a nursing home. I couldn't have taken good care of her at home and she loved all the activities they had there. Noone should feel guilty for making that choice.

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    1. "You have to go one day at a time and just love them like you always did and hope for the best" is really the bottom line of all this from the caregiver perspective. The situation is what it is and cannot change. So, the CG must adapt as things shift with time. Easy? Of course not. But, Donna, you point out some of the pluses of memory loss as well as all the joy that can still be experienced.

      Thank you for your insightful comment.

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  8. Like you, I had no idea how prevalent dementia and AZ were until I started working with hospice. And I have to agree that caregivers are under tremendous strain, for many diseases, but the day to day care for an Alzheimers patient is really intense. And for many people, their isn't much relief. The lucky ones have grown kids nearby to help out. And I will never, ever criticize someone for needing to place their loved on in a facility. I have seen people take care of someone at home far past the stage where they should have, and it's just dangerous to everyone: the patient and, often more so, for the caregiver, particularly when the patient starts to become more aggressive or even violent. Overall, a sad situation all around, but a very necessary discussion, Bob!

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    1. Since I didn't experience any of the really severe dementia effects from either of my parents before they died I am not one to give any advice. But, I would agree with what you and Donna noted, that caregiving for someone in the last stages of this disease must require the patience of Job. And, at some point, the dangers for everyone involved require the use of a facility, if at all possible.

      Frankly, until I did the basic research for this post I was blissfully unaware of the violent nature of some aspects of dementia and Alzheimers.

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  9. I have been following the health literature on Alzheimer’s and other dementias for some time, but I hadn’t realized that it was so prevalent. One in ten seniors 65 and over have Alzheimer’s and the rate keeps rising? That is shocking. It is such a devasting disease, both for the individual that develops Alzheimer’s and also for their caregivers. From what I have read, although there is no cure, one of the directions suggested by recent research is to adopt a lifestyle that slows down its progress. All the usual healthy living guidelines are on the list, including quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake, exercise, healthy diet, getting enough sleep, having satisfying social relationships, and continuing to use the brain to learn new things. Thanks for addressing this topic.

    Jude

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    1. Like you, I didn't realize how prevalent the disease was either. At least I am now somewhat better educated.

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  10. My oldest sister died from Picks disease (a variant of Alzheimer's) She went from normal to passing in about 5 years at 70. It was very tough watching her go from a robust Mom of 5 and a great pediatric nurse to a living nothing. I know a bad stroke or AZ both scare me a lot as I pass 70. I cannot imagine being tied down to a wheel chair where my body is broken but my mind is alive or vice versa of AZ where your mind is broken and you get lost in your home town. I guess growing old is just tough.
    Hope all is well with you and your family. We are packing now to leave Phoenix and head north for the summer. Good Luck. Bill

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    1. I am unaware of Pick's disease but will take a look. The swiftness of this type of ailment is very scary.

      Enjoy your time in the cooler weather. The temp is stuck over 100 until late October.

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