Every 67 seconds a person living in the United States develops Alzheimer’s Disease, says the Alzheimer’s Association. They also report that there are currently 5.2 million people in America living with Alzheimer’s Diseases (AD) and, by year’s end, five hundred thousand will die because of it.[i]
These facts are sobering alone. When wrapped in the guise of media speculation, broadcasted repeatedly in news headlines and special reports, these statistics are downright scary.
There is no doubt about it, AD is a frightening topic that needs to be discussed, but is there too much noise surrounding the issue? Are the facts being properly represented in the news? Or are media outlets doing nothing more than scaring people?
This article intends to distinguish fact from fiction in regards to Alzheimer’s Disease. It is purposed to present that facts: what do people need to know about AD and other dementias, what is the progression of Alzheimer’s and how a person can enjoy life after being diagnosed with the irreversible disease.
Dementia is Not a Death Sentence
The rise of Alzheimer’s can seem like a plague in this era. How people discuss this form of dementia can greatly influence the way people discuss this disease in years to come. Moving forward, it will be important to debunk the stigmas that surround this issue. Until science and medicine develop cures for dementia, the disease is here to stay but may be not as bad as it seems.
Getting diagnosed with dementia is not a death sentence. Some forms can be stalled, while other types of dementia can be reversed. For instance, hydrocephalus is a condition caused liquids in the head causing the brain to swell. While dementia is a side effect of this diagnosis, it can often be reversed when the liquid is drained.[ii] More so, some nutritional deficiencies can cause signs of dementia but are often remedied with an increase of vitamin supplements. In addition, depression, substance abuse and brain tumors are other causes of dementia symptoms that can often be treated.[iii]
Some Forms of Dementia are Irreversible
Unfortunately, not all forms of dementia can be stalled or treated. While Alzheimer’s is the most prominent, irreversible forms of dementia, there are other types that need to be considered as well.
Here are three types of dementia that are subject for deeper study:
Vascular Cognitive Impairment (VCI) often occurs in people who had strokes. It is caused by damaged blood vessels in the brain.
Lewy body dementia is caused by foreign protein clusters that develop in the brain. It is common to see Lewy bodies show up in people who have Parkinson’s.[iv]
Tauopathies occur when clumps of the protein tau are present in the brain’s nerve cells. This creates for a hostile environment, killing once healthy cells. Related forms of dementia include Corticobasal Degeneration (CBD), which is the result of losing nerve cells and brain atrophy. Another form of dementia that is sometimes tied to tauopathies includes Frontotemporal disorders (FTD). This diagnosis considers a variety of brain diseases that hinder the functioning of the frontal and temporal lobes.
Often times, AD is only diagnosed after many other forms of dementia have been considered and disregarded. Alzheimer’s is the gravest form of dementia, as it is responsible for 60 percent of all dementia diagnoses ("2014 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures").
The Truth About Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s symptoms become more significant as time goes on. In early stages it can be mistaken for common forgetfulness. As time goes on, however, it becomes clear that the changes in mental function go beyond loss of short-term memories. When a person’s memory troubles become a pattern, it is important to see a doctor who specializes in neurodegenerative disorders.
Still, this does not mean that a person has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Much testing needs to be done to conclude that a person is progressing in the symptoms of irreversible brain diseases ("2014 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures").
The Stages of Alzheimer’s
Due to the high diagnosis rate, a lot of attention is being given to Alzheimer’s. In effect, there are many facts published about the early, middle and late stages of Alzheimer’s.[v]
The onset of the disease is very subtle. It is evident in slight cognitive impairments like forgetfulness. This is often coupled with difficulty to learn something new. Also, tasks that were once typical, like grocery shopping, managing money, and using a phone or computer might become challenging.
When these seemingly common signs of forgetfulness appear to be more significant, symptoms become more clinical and easy to diagnose. The middle stage of Alzheimer’s includes multiple cognitive deficits including aphasia, apraxia, agnosia and agraphia. These terms are listed with brief definitions below[vi]:
Aphasia - Inability to speak
Apraxia - Impaired ability to perform purposeful activity
Agnosia - Difficulty recognizing name of objects
Agraphia - Inability to write
In addition, there are reports of troubles with executive functioning, thinking abstractly and getting a good night’s sleep.
Towards the middle and late stages of Alzheimer’s there may be delusions and hallucinations as well as bouts of aggression and temptation to wander. Many times patients with advance stages require consistent, total care.
Is it Possible to Manage Alzheimer’s and other forms of Dementia?
Upon receiving the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or another form of irreversible dementia it is important to know that there is still much life to live. In the early stages of the disease, it is possible to keep up with activities and relationships. In fact, it is more important than ever to enjoy interests and invest in personal health.
Imagine that you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. You can expect to have some bad days, but many good days, too. Make the most of good days. Take care of yourself by getting fresh air and being as physically active as possible. Try to ward off feelings of depression by reaching out to people who support you. Join an AD support group or visit a certified counselor. There are people who can walk you through the many feelings you experience and offer you the listening ear you may want, need and deserve.
Maintain relationships with friends and family by being open an honest about your disease. What fears plague you right now? Share them with the ones you love. Also, share what you are learning about the disease as it progresses. In addition, allow the people in your life to support you by studying up on your symptoms and sharing what they learn with you. Avoid isolating yourself as this is the time where your family will want to embrace you the most.
Once it becomes clear that a neurodegenerative disease is encroaching, the most valuable thing to do is strengthen the ties and personal health. Finding a mental healthcare professional can soften the blow of a dementia diagnosis and increase the quality of life a person experiences as he or she travels through the stages of AD. These professionals are available to walk people through the emotional journey of dementia, and are equipped to discuss the mental challenges that occur.[vii] With a network of support, a person with Alzheimer’s can face his or her disease with a greater sense of self-worth.
As people of the Baby Boomer generation reach 65 years in age and older, the rates of Alzheimer’s are expected to increase. While it is important to learn about the disease and other forms of dementia, it is valuable to understand dementia for what it is and not what media makes it out to be. A neurodevelopmental disease is cause for alarm but attempt to put this fear aside.
Dementia is not a death sentence. It is a reality. Learn what it is and what it is not. This can help guide the future understanding of this disease.
[i] 2014 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures. (2014). Alzheimer’s Association. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from http://www.alz.org/downloads/Facts_Figures_2014.pdf
[ii] Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH). (2012). U.S National Library of Medicine. Retrieved April 9, 2014, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000752.htm