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Living with Alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of disability in older individuals. While the possibility of contracting this disease may be hard to think about, patients and family members need to know about the course of the disease and possible risks and benefits of treatment. Touro Family Medicine physician, Dr. Meredith Maxwell, is here to discuss the symptoms of early on-set Alzheimer’s, and explains what family members should know about treatment and care.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer disease is a disease that affects the brain and nervous system. It happens when nerve cells in the brain die. The disease gets worse over time. It is a type of dementia. Doctors don't know what causes Alzheimer disease. They think it might be caused by 1 or more of these:

  • Age and family history
  • Certain genes
  • Abnormal protein deposits in the brain
  • Environmental factors
  • Immune system problems

What are the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s?

  • Memory loss that affects job skills, especially short-term memory loss
  • Trouble doing familiar tasks
  • Problems with language
  • Confusion about time and place
  • Poor judgment
  • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Misplacing things
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Changes in personality
  • Loss of desire to do things
  • Loss of the ability to know who people are. This even includes people whom the person knows well, such as a child or spouse.

How is Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?

No single test can diagnose Alzheimer disease. A healthcare provider will first rule out other conditions. But the only way to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer disease is to examine the brain after death. An autopsy can show changes in the brain that mark the disease.

It’s important to find out if the dementia is caused by an illness that can be treated. A healthcare provider will do thorough exams of the person’s nervous system. The provider may also do:

  • Complete health history. This may include questions about overall health and past health problems. The provider will see how well the person can do daily tasks. The provider may ask family members about any changes in behavior or personality.
  • Mental status test. This may include tests of memory, problem-solving, attention, counting, and language. Neuropsychological testing may also be done. This will likely be a series of tests that assess your brain function. It often involves answering questions and doing certain tasks.
  • Other lab tests. These may include blood and urine tests to find possible causes of the problem.
  • Brain imaging tests. CT, MRI, or position emission tomography (PET) may be used to rule out other causes of the problem.

What are the Treatment Options?

At this time, Alzheimer disease has no cure. There is no way of slowing down the progression of this disease. And no treatment is available to reverse the changes that the disease brings on. But new research findings give reason for hope. Several medicines are being studied in clinical trials to see if they can slow the progress of the disease or improve memory for a period of time. Medicines can be used to help maintain mental function and carry out daily activities. Exercise and social activities are important to help manage the disease. So are good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, and a calm and well-structured environment.

What should family members know about living with Alzheimer’s?

Care programs for people with Alzheimer disease differ depending on the symptoms a person has and how far along the disease is. These programs can help a person and their family manage the disease.

Any skills lost will not be regained, but these tips can help people and families living with Alzheimer disease:

  • Plan a balanced program of exercise, social activity, good nutrition, and other healthy lifestyle activities.
  • Plan daily activities that help to give structure, meaning, and goals for the person.
  • As the person is less able to function, change activities and routines to let the person take part as much as possible.
  • Keep activities familiar and satisfying.
  • Let the person do as many things by themself as possible. The caregiver may need to start an activity, but allow the person to complete it as much as they can.
  • Give "cues" to help the person. For example, label drawers, cabinets, and closets to let the person know what is in them.
  • Keep the person out of harm's way by removing all safety risks. These might include car keys and matches.

If you are a family member or caretaker of someone living with Alzheimer’s know that you are not alone. As a caregiver, understand your own physical and emotional limits. Take care of yourself and ask for help if you need it. Contact your provider if you have any questions about treatment options and best care practices.

If you or someone you know needs a primary care provider, you can visit or call 504-897-7777