Early Alzheimer's Disease: Patient and Family Guide
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Terms You Need to Know
Dementia is a medical condition that interferes with the way the brain works. Symptoms include anxiety, paranoia, personality changes, lack of initiative, and difficulty acquiring new skills. Besides Alzheimer's disease, some other types or causes of dementia include: alcoholic dementia, depression, delirium, HIV/AIDS-related dementia, Huntington's disease (a disorder of the nervous system), inflammatory disease (for example, syphilis), vascular dementia (blood vessel disease in the brain), tumors, and Parkinson's disease.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It proceeds in stages over months or years and gradually destroys memory, reason, judgment, language, and eventually the ability to carry out even simple tasks.
Delirium is a state of temporary but acute mental confusion that comes on suddenly. Symptoms may include anxiety, disorientation, tremors, hallucinations, delusions, and incoherence. Delirium can occur in older persons who have short-term illnesses, heart or lung disease, long-term infections, poor nutrition, or hormone disorders. Alcohol or drugs (including medications) also may cause confusion.
Delirium may be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
Depression can occur in older persons, especially those with physical problems. Symptoms include sadness, inactivity, difficulty thinking and concentrating, and feelings of despair. Depressed persons often have trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, fatigue, and agitation. Depression usually can be treated successfully.
What Is Alzheimer's Disease?
In Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, problems with memory, judgment, and thought processes make it hard for a person to work and take part in day-to-day family and social life. Changes in mood and personality also may occur. These changes can result in loss of self- control and other problems.
Some 2 to 4 million persons have dementia associated with aging. Of these individuals, as many as two-thirds have Alzheimer's disease.
Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease at this time, it may be possible to relieve some of the symptoms, such as wandering and incontinence.
The earlier the diagnosis, the more likely your symptoms will respond to treatment. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you think you or a family member may have signs of Alzheimer's disease.
Research is under way to find better ways to treat Alzheimer's disease. Ask your doctor if there are any new developments that might help you.
Who Is Affected?
The chances of getting Alzheimer's disease increase with age. It usually occurs after age 65. Most people are not affected even at advanced ages. There are only two definite factors that increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease: a family history of dementia and Down syndrome.
Family History of Dementia
Some forms of Alzheimer's disease are inherited. If Alzheimer's disease has occurred in your family members, other members are more likely to develop it. Discuss any family history of dementia with your family doctor.
Persons with Down syndrome have a higher chance of getting Alzheimer's disease. Close relatives of persons with Down syndrome also may be at risk.
What Are the Signs of Alzheimer's Disease?
The classic sign of early Alzheimer's disease is gradual loss of short- term memory. Other signs include:
Problems finding or speaking the right word.
Inability to recognize objects.
Forgetting how to use simple, ordinary things, such as a pencil.
Forgetting to turn off the stove, close windows, or lock doors.
Mood and personality changes also may occur. Agitation, problems with memory, and poor judgment may cause unusual behavior. These symptoms vary from one person to the next.
Symptoms appear gradually in persons with Alzheimer's disease but may progress more slowly in some persons than in others. In other forms of dementia, symptoms may appear suddenly or may come and go.
If you have some of these signs, this does not mean you have Alzheimer's disease. Anyone can have a lapse of memory or show poor judgment now and then. When such lapses become frequent or dangerous, however, you should tell your doctor about them immediately.
Possible Signs of Alzheimer's Disease
Do you have problems with any of these activities:
Learning and remembering new information. Do you repeat things that you say or do?
Forget conversations or appointments? Forget where you put things?
Handling complex tasks. Do you have trouble performing tasks that require many steps such as balancing a checkbook or cooking a meal?
Reasoning ability. Do you have trouble solving everyday problems at work or home, such as knowing what to do if the bathroom is flooded?
Spatial ability and orientation. Do you have trouble driving or finding your way around familiar places?
Language. Do you have trouble finding the words to express what you want to say?
Behavior. Do you have trouble paying attention? Are you more irritable or less trusting than usual?
Remember, everyone has occasional memory lapses. Just because you can't recall where you put the car keys doesn't mean you have Alzheimer's disease.
Consulting the Doctor
Identifying mild cases of Alzheimer's disease can be very difficult. Your doctor will review your health and mental status, both past and present. Changes from your previous, usual mental and physical functioning are especially important.
Persons with Alzheimer's disease may not realize the severity of their condition. Your doctor will probably want to talk with family members or a close friend about their impressions of your condition.
The doctors first assessment for Alzheimer's disease should include a focused history, a physical examination, a functional status assessment, and a mental status assessment.
Medical and Family History
Questions the doctor may ask in taking your history include: How and when did problems begin?
Have the symptoms progressed in steps or worsened steadily? Do they vary from day to day?
How long have they lasted?
Your doctor will ask about past and current medical problems and whether other family members have had Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia.
Education and other cultural factors can make a difference in how you will do on mental ability tests. Language problems (for example, difficulty speaking English) can cause misunderstanding. Be sure to tell the doctor about any language problems that could affect your test results.
It is important to tell the doctor about all the drugs you take and how long you have been taking them. Drug reactions can cause dementia. Bring all medication bottles and pills to the appointment with your doctor.
Do you take any medications? Even over-the-counter drugs, eye drops, and alcohol can cause a decline in mental ability. Tell your doctor about all the drugs you take. Ask if the drugs are safe when taken together.
Sandra Parkeson (c) copyright
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