Alzheimer's strikes about one-tenth of the people over 65 years old and almost one-half of those who live past 85. "Many people confuse Alzheimer's disease with dementia," explained Family Medicine physician Jeffrey Cohen, D.O. "Dementia is a group of symptoms related to the loss of mental functions, such as thinking, memory and reasoning; which are severe enough to interfere with a person's daily functioning. Many causes of dementia symptoms exist, but Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause.
"Some people with Alzheimer's may cry, become very angry or behave in ways that embarrass those around them. They may forget things, repeat the same questions, or have trouble finding the right words. They may not remember who you are, even if they know you very well. This occurs because changes deep inside their brains are destroying the centers that control their memory, thinking and feeling."
Like any other body organ, the brain's ability to function properly can break down over time. "Alzheimer's disease causes brain cells to lose their ability to form new connections with other cells," Dr. Cohen said. "As the disease progresses, nerve cells begin to die. Over time, widespread cell death erases basic knowledge that is stored in the brain. People lose their ability to recognize others and may forget who they are or where they live. In its latest stages, Alzheimer's disease destroys the brain cells that control movement and swallowing. People at these stages need constant care and eventually die from this disease."
"If you or a loved one are experiencing some of the warning signs of Alzheimer's, talk to your doctor to determine if a medical evaluation or treatment is needed for you or the person in your care," Dr. Cohen continued.
"There are a few medications that are may be used to treat people with mild to moderate symptoms of Alzheimer's, such as those symptoms affecting affect memory, language, judgment, planning, ability to pay attention and other thought processes. These drugs affect the activity of different chemicals involved in carrying messages between the brain's nerve cells."
What's Not Normal:
10 Warning Signs
1. Memory loss: Forgetting recently learned information; beginning to forget more often.
What's normal? Forgetting names or appointments occasionally.
2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks: Losing track of steps involved in daily tasks.
What's normal? Occasionally forgetting why you came in a room.
3. Problems with language: Forgetting simple words or substituting unusual words.
What's normal? Sometimes having trouble finding the right word.
4. Disorientation to time and place: Forgetting where you are, how you got there, and not knowing how to get back home.
What's normal? Forgetting the day of the week or where you were going.
5. Poor or decreased judgment: Dressing inappropriately, making random decisions.
What's normal? Making a questionable or debatable decision from time to time.
6. Problems with abstract thinking: Unusual difficulty performing complex mental tasks, like forgetting what numbers are for and how they should be used.
What's normal? Finding it challenging to balance a checkbook.
7. Misplacing things: Putting things in unusual places.
What's normal? Misplacing keys or a wallet temporarily.
8. Changes in mood or behavior: Rapid mood swings for no apparent reason.
What's normal? Occasionally feeling sad or moody.
9. Dramatic changes in personality: Becoming extremely confused, suspicious, fearful or dependent on a family member.
What's normal? People's personalities can change somewhat with age.
10. Loss of initiative: Sitting in front of the TV for hours, sleeping more than usual or not wanting to do normal activities.
What's normal? Sometimes feeling weary of work or social obligations.
(Excerpted from Alzheimer's Association website: www.alz.org)
Between 70-90 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease eventually develop behavioral symptoms, including sleeplessness, wandering, pacing, aggression, agitation, anger, depression, and hallucinations and delusions. Caregiver strategies for managing difficult behaviors include: Stay calm and be understanding.
-Be patient and flexible. Don't argue or try to convince.
-Acknowledge requests and respond to them.
-Try not to take behaviors personally. Remember: it's the disease talking, not your loved one.
"Some newer drugs are also being used to treat the symptoms of moderate to severe Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Cohen concluded. "These drugs can help improve some patients' abilities to carry out daily activities for up to a year or so, but they don't stop or reverse Alzheimer's."
Jeffrey Cohen, D.O., is a Family Medicine physician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff and Firestone Healthcare, which has offices at 28885 state Route 62 in Damascus (330-537-4661), 132 North Market Street in East Palestine (330-426-9484), and 2364 Southeast Boulevard in Salem (330-332-4833).