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How To Manage Alzheimer's Dementia

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

Alzheimer's dementia is a progressive neurological disorder that primarily affects cognitive function, including memory, thinking, and behaviour.

It is the most common cause of dementia, a syndrome characterised by a decline in memory and other cognitive abilities that interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's is a degenerative condition, meaning it worsens over time.

My mum with my sister and I on Mother's Day a few years ago
My mum with my sister and I on Mother's Day a few years ago

Alzheimer's stories

I am having a personal experience with Alzheimer's Disease as my mum was diagnosed and my family are dealing with helping her with the best possible care living with Alzheimer’s.

My mum was a high functioning, fit, healthy, prep school teacher.

She made our clothes, knitted our sweaters, home grew and cooked all our meals, gardened, cleaned our home spotlessly and played tennis and hockey competitively in her younger years.

My mum, my sister and I with my cat, Smokey Jo
My mum, my sister and I with my cat, Smokey Jo

Her memory started to deteriorate around 7-8 years ago and unfortunately she no longer remembers who I am, or her Grandchildren, residing in Australia, whilst she lives in England.

My 86 year old dad cares for her at home, with the help of my sister, who lives locally and works from home 3 days a week, to care for my mum, so that Dad can go out to engage in the volunteer work he loves at the Cathedral and a National Trust Property.

If no one is home mum tends to wander off and is unable to find her way home, so they have to either be with her, or use a security area camera or tag, to make sure she doesn’t get lost.

My Dad and sister have introduced mum to local dementia support groups in the village where they live, so they have community support with other families going through the same struggles and mum is able to enjoy friendships and craft to stimulate her brain.

My mum at a community dementia centre arranging flowers
My mum at a community dementia centre arranging flowers

Key Characteristics of Alzheimer's Dementia:

  • Memory Loss:

  • Individuals with Alzheimer's often experience significant memory loss, especially in terms of recent events and newly learned information.

  • Cognitive Decline:

  • There is a gradual decline in cognitive abilities, affecting thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

  • Communication Challenges:

  • Language difficulties may arise, impacting an individual's ability to express themselves or understand spoken or written language.

  • Disorientation:

  • People with Alzheimer's may become disoriented in time and space, getting lost in familiar surroundings or being unaware of the current date.

  • Behavioural Changes:

  • Changes in behaviour and personality may occur, such as increased irritability, anxiety, or mood swings.

  • Difficulty Performing Familiar Tasks:

  • Individuals may struggle with everyday tasks, such as dressing, cooking, or managing finances.

  • Loss of Initiative:

  • A decline in motivation and initiative may become apparent, leading to withdrawal from social activities and decreased interest in hobbies.

My mum at a local community dementia centre knitting
My mum at a local community dementia centre knitting

Impact on Individuals:

  • Loss of Independence:

  • As the disease progresses, individuals with Alzheimer's may become increasingly dependent on others for daily activities and personal care.

  • Emotional Distress:

  • Individuals may experience frustration, confusion, and emotional distress as they grapple with the challenges of memory loss and cognitive decline.

  • Isolation:

  • Social isolation may occur due to difficulties in communication and changes in behaviour. Individuals may withdraw from friends and family.

  • Physical Health Challenges:

  • The progression of Alzheimer's can impact physical health, leading to issues such as difficulty swallowing, weight loss, and increased vulnerability to infections.

Impact on Families:

  • Caregiver Stress:

  • Family members, often spouses or adult children, take on caregiving responsibilities, which can be emotionally and physically demanding. This can lead to caregiver stress and burnout. Self care is essential.

  • Financial Strain:

  • The cost of medical care, medications, and potential home modifications for safety can result in financial strain for families.

  • Emotional Strain:

  • Watching a loved one decline and witnessing changes in their personality can be emotionally challenging for family members.

  • Altered Family Dynamics:

  • Roles within the family may shift, with one family member taking on the primary caregiver role. This can lead to changes in relationships and family dynamics.

  • Decision-Making Challenges:

  • Families may face difficult decisions regarding the care and living arrangements of the individual with Alzheimer's, such as whether to provide care at home or consider assisted living facilities.

  • Community Impact:

  • Alzheimer's not only affects individual families but also has broader societal implications, including increased healthcare costs and the need for community resources to support those affected.

My mum at a local community dementia centre with a volunteer flower arranging
My mum at a local community dementia centre with a volunteer flower arranging

Understanding the impact of Alzheimer's dementia on individuals and families is crucial for developing compassionate and effective support systems.

It highlights the importance of early diagnosis, access to resources, and the need for ongoing research to find better treatments and, ultimately, a cure for this challenging condition.

How Alzheimer's Differs from Normal Ageing:

  • Frequency and Severity:

  • While some degree of memory decline is considered a normal part of aging, the severity and frequency of memory loss in Alzheimer's are more pronounced and interfere significantly with daily life.

  • Progression Over Time:

  • Alzheimer's is a progressive and degenerative disease, meaning that symptoms worsen over time. Normal aging typically involves mild, gradual changes in cognitive function, but it does not lead to the severe cognitive decline seen in Alzheimer’s.

  • Impact on Independence:

  • Normal aging may involve a gradual slowing of cognitive processes, but individuals can generally maintain their independence and manage daily activities. In contrast, Alzheimer's can lead to a loss of independence as the disease progresses.

  • Consistency of Symptoms:

  • Normal aging may involve occasional forgetfulness or difficulty finding the right word, but these occurrences are typically sporadic. In Alzheimer's, the symptoms are consistent, pervasive, and interfere significantly with daily functioning.

  • Underlying Pathology:

  • Alzheimer's is associated with specific pathological changes in the brain, such as the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles. These changes are not part of the normal aging process.

It is important to note that ageing does not inevitably lead to Alzheimer's disease, and many older adults maintain good cognitive function throughout their lives. If individuals or their loved ones notice significant changes in memory or cognitive abilities that go beyond typical age-related forgetfulness, seeking medical attention for a thorough evaluation is crucial for early detection and intervention. Early diagnosis allows for better management of symptoms and access to available treatments.

Early detection and proactive management of Alzheimer's dementia are crucial for several reasons:

1. Access to Available Treatments:

  • While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's, some medications may help manage symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease. Early detection allows individuals to start these treatments at a more effective stage.

2. Improved Quality of Life:

  • Proactive management, including medications, lifestyle interventions, and support services, can enhance the individual's quality of life. It may help maintain cognitive function and independence for a longer duration.

3. Care Planning:

  • Early detection provides an opportunity for individuals and their families to plan for the future. This includes making decisions about caregiving, living arrangements, legal and financial matters, and end-of-life care.

4. Emotional and Psychological Support:

  • A timely diagnosis allows individuals and their families to access emotional and psychological support services. Coping with the diagnosis of Alzheimer's can be challenging, and having a support system in place is essential.

5. Clinical Trials and Research Opportunities:

  • Early detection allows individuals to participate in clinical trials and research studies aimed at understanding the disease better and developing new treatments. This contributes to the advancement of medical knowledge and potential breakthroughs.

6. Identification of Reversible Causes:

  • Some cognitive decline may be caused by treatable conditions such as vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems, or medication side effects. Early detection helps identify and address reversible causes of cognitive impairment.

7. Empowerment Through Education:

  • Being aware of an Alzheimer's diagnosis empowers individuals and their families with information. Education about the disease, its progression, and available resources allows for better decision-making and planning.

8. Safety Planning:

  • Individuals with Alzheimer's are at risk of safety issues, such as wandering or forgetting to turn off appliances. Early detection allows families to implement safety measures, such as home modifications and the use of tracking devices, to ensure the well-being of the affected individual.

9. Reduced Burden on Caregivers:

  • Caregivers often face challenges in managing the care of individuals with Alzheimer's. Early detection provides an opportunity for caregivers to seek support, education, and respite services, reducing the overall burden on them.

10. Community Awareness and Support:

  • Early detection contributes to raising awareness about Alzheimer's within communities. This can lead to increased understanding, reduced stigma, and the development of community support networks.

  • Early detection and proactive management of Alzheimer's dementia offer numerous benefits, including the potential to improve quality of life, access available treatments, plan for the future, and contribute to ongoing research efforts. It is essential for individuals, families, and healthcare providers to work collaboratively to address the challenges posed by this progressive and complex condition.

My mum at a local community dementia centre colouring
My mum at a local community dementia centre colouring

Causes and Alzheimer's Risk Factors

The causes of Alzheimer's dementia are not fully understood, and the disease likely results from a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

Here are some main causes and risk factors associated with Alzheimer's dementia:

1. Age and Alzheimer's:

  • The most significant risk factor for Alzheimer's dementia is age. The likelihood of developing the condition increases with advancing age, and it is most commonly diagnosed in individuals aged 65 and older.

2. Genetic Factors:

  • Familial Cases: In some cases, Alzheimer's has a genetic component. Individuals with a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) who has had Alzheimer's may have a higher risk.

  • Genetic Mutations: Certain genetic mutations, such as those in the APP, PSEN1, and PSEN2 genes, are associated with an increased risk of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

3. Family history and Alzheimer's:

  • A family history of Alzheimer's may increase the risk, but it's not a guarantee that an individual will develop the disease. Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to familial risk.

4. Down Syndrome:

  • Individuals with Down syndrome are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's dementia, typically starting in their 40s or 50s.

5. Gender:

  • Women may be at a slightly higher risk than men, possibly due to differences in hormonal levels or other biological factors.

6. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI):

  • Individuals with mild cognitive impairment, which involves noticeable cognitive decline beyond what is expected for age but not meeting the criteria for dementia, may be at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

7. Cardiovascular Risk Factors:

  • Conditions that affect the cardiovascular system, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

8. Head Trauma:

  • A history of severe head trauma, such as concussions, may be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's later in life.

9. Lifestyle and Alzheimer’s:

  • Physical Inactivity: Lack of physical activity is a potential risk factor. Regular exercise is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline.

  • Poor Diet: Diets high in saturated fats and low in fruits and vegetables may contribute to an increased risk.

  • Smoking: Smoking is considered a potential risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

10. Education and Cognitive Engagement:

Lower levels of education and limited cognitive engagement throughout life may be associated with an increased risk.

11. Environmental and Occupational Factors:

Some environmental factors and occupational exposures may contribute to the risk of Alzheimer's, although the evidence is not conclusive.

12. Immune System and Inflammation:

Chronic inflammation and abnormalities in the immune system may play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s.

It's important to note that having one or more risk factors does not mean an individual will develop Alzheimer's dementia, and some people with the disease may not have any known risk factors.

Research is ongoing to better understand the complex interplay of factors that contribute to the development of Alzheimer's, and identifying modifiable risk factors may provide opportunities for prevention and intervention in the future.

Additionally, a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, and cognitive stimulation may contribute to overall brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Me, my mum and big sister a few years ago
Me, my mum and big sister a few years ago

Early Detection and Alzheimer's Diagnosis

  • Recognising Early Signs of Alzheimer's

Early detection of Alzheimer's dementia is crucial for timely intervention and management. Being aware of common early signs can help individuals and their families seek medical attention for a comprehensive evaluation. It's important to note that occasional memory lapses are a normal part of aging, but persistent and worsening symptoms may be indicative of a more serious condition. Here are common early signs of Alzheimer's dementia:

1. Memory Loss:

  • Normal Ageing: Forgetting names or appointments occasionally.

  • Alzheimer's: Forgetting recently learned information, important dates, or events, and relying on memory aids (notes, reminders) more frequently.

2. Difficulty Planning and Problem-Solving:

  • Normal Ageing: Occasional errors in managing finances or planning.

  • Alzheimer's: Challenges in developing and following a plan, organising tasks, or solving familiar problems.

3. Confusion with Time and Place:

  • Normal Ageing: Getting confused about the day of the week but realising it later.

  • Alzheimer's: Losing track of dates, seasons, and the passage of time; forgetting where they are and how they got there.

4. Changes in Vision and Spatial Relationships:

  • Normal Ageing: Changes in vision requiring adjustments, such as using reading glasses.

  • Alzheimer's: Difficulty judging distances, determining colours, or recognising their own reflection.

5. Misplacing Items and Unable to Retrace Steps:

  • Normal Ageing: Misplacing items occasionally.

  • Alzheimer's: Frequently putting things in unusual places, like placing keys in the refrigerator, and being unable to retrace steps to find them.

6. Word-Finding Challenges:

  • Normal Ageing: Occasionally struggling to find the right word.

  • Alzheimer's: Frequently pausing in the middle of a sentence to find the correct word, or using incorrect words in conversation.

7. Decreased Judgment:

  • Normal Ageing: Making a poor decision occasionally.

  • Alzheimer's: Demonstrating a significant decline in judgment, leading to poor financial or personal decisions.

8. Withdrawal from Social Activities:

  • Normal Ageing: Preferring some solitude.

  • Alzheimer's: Avoiding social activities, hobbies, or work tasks they once enjoyed, often due to difficulties in communication or fear of making mistakes.

9. Mood and Personality Changes:

  • Normal Ageing: Consistent personality traits.

  • Alzheimer's: Noticeable shifts in mood, including increased irritability, anxiety, or depression, and changes in personality.

10. Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks:

  • Normal Ageing: Taking a bit longer to complete tasks.

  • Alzheimer's: Struggling to complete familiar tasks, such as cooking a meal or driving to a familiar location.

11. Repetition:

  • Normal Ageing: Telling a story or joke more than once.

  • Alzheimer's: Repeating the same questions, statements, or stories within a short period, often without realising it.

12. Loss of Initiative:

  • Normal Ageing: Experiencing occasional fatigue or lack of motivation.

  • Alzheimer's: Demonstrating a significant decline in initiative, leading to withdrawal from work, social activities, or hobbies.

If individuals or their families notice persistent and worsening signs, it's crucial to seek medical evaluation and consultation with healthcare professionals.

Early intervention, diagnosis, and appropriate care planning can make a significant difference in managing Alzheimer's dementia.

Diagnostic Procedures

The diagnostic process for Alzheimer's dementia is comprehensive and typically involves a thorough assessment of an individual's medical history, cognitive function, physical health, and sometimes, specialised tests.

Alzheimer's screening is designed to rule out other potential causes of cognitive decline and to provide an accurate diagnosis. Here are the key components of the diagnostic process for Alzheimer's dementia:

1. Medical History and Physical Examination:

  • The healthcare provider will begin by taking a detailed medical history, including information about current symptoms, family history of dementia, and any pre-existing medical conditions.

  • A physical examination helps rule out other potential causes of cognitive decline, such as thyroid disorders or vitamin deficiencies.

2. Cognitive Assessment:

  • Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE): This is a commonly used screening tool to assess cognitive function. It evaluates aspects of memory, attention, language, and visuospatial skills.

  • Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA): Another cognitive screening tool that assesses various cognitive domains.

  • Clock Drawing Test, Animal Naming Test, and Other Cognitive Tasks: Additional tasks may be used to assess specific cognitive functions.

3. Neuropsychological Testing:

  • More in-depth neuropsychological assessments may be conducted to evaluate specific cognitive functions, such as memory, language, executive function, and attention.

4. Blood Tests:

  • Blood tests may be ordered to rule out other potential causes of cognitive decline, such as vitamin deficiencies, thyroid dysfunction, or metabolic disorders.

5. Brain Imaging:

  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or CT (Computed Tomography): These imaging techniques can provide detailed pictures of the brain structure and help identify abnormalities, such as tumours or strokes.

  • PET (Positron Emission Tomography) Scan: PET scans can measure brain activity and detect abnormalities, including the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

6. Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) Analysis:

  • In some cases, a lumbar puncture may be performed to analyse the cerebrospinal fluid for markers associated with Alzheimer's disease, such as beta-amyloid and tau proteins.

7. Genetic Testing:

  • While genetic testing is not routine, it may be considered in cases where there is a family history of early-onset Alzheimer's or specific genetic mutations associated with the disease.

8. Functional Assessment:

  • Evaluating the individual's ability to perform daily activities and assessing any decline in functional independence.

9. Psychiatric Evaluation:

  • Assessing for symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other psychiatric conditions that may contribute to cognitive decline.

10. Follow-Up and Monitoring:

  • Ongoing follow-up appointments may be scheduled to monitor cognitive function over time and adjust the diagnosis and management plan as needed.

11. Collaboration with Specialists:

  • Collaboration with neurologists, geriatricians, neuropsychologists, and other specialists may be involved in the diagnostic process, depending on the specific needs of the individual.

It is important to note that there is no single definitive test for Alzheimer's disease.

Diagnosis is often based on a combination of clinical evaluation, cognitive assessments, and supporting diagnostic tests.

Additionally, early detection allows for timely intervention, appropriate care planning, and the implementation of available treatments that may help manage symptoms and improve the quality of life for individuals with Alzheimer's dementia.

My Mum and Dad dancing at their local Community Dementia Support Group
My Mum and Dad dancing at their local Community Dementia Support Group

Managing Alzheimer's Dementia

Management and Treatment options:

Medical Interventions

  • There are medications approved by regulatory authorities for Alzheimer's management of symptoms and the potential slowing down of progression in Alzheimer's disease.

  • Treatment options and guidelines evolve, so it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional for the most current information.

  • The following Alzheimer's medications have been commonly prescribed:

1. Cholinesterase Inhibitors:

  • These drugs work by increasing levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is reduced in Alzheimer's disease.

  • Examples include:

  • Donepezil (Aricept)

  • Rivastigmine (Exelon)

  • Galantamine (Razadyne)

2. NMDA Receptor Antagonist:

  • This type of medication regulates glutamate, another neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory.

  • Example:

  • Memantine (Namenda)

3. Combination Therapy:

  • In some cases, a combination of a cholinesterase inhibitor and memantine may be prescribed for enhanced symptom management.

4. Antipsychotic Medications:

  • In certain situations, antipsychotic medications may be prescribed to manage behavioural symptoms like agitation, aggression, or hallucinations. However, these medications are used cautiously due to potential side effects.

5. Supportive Therapies:

  • Occupational Therapy: To help individuals maintain independence in daily activities.

  • Speech Therapy: To address communication difficulties.

  • Physical Therapy: Regular physical activity has been associated with potential cognitive benefits.

  • Music Therapy.

  • Cognitive Stimulation Therapy.

  • Support Groups.

  • Counselling for Alzheimer's caregivers on creating a supportive environment while caregiving for Alzheimer’s relatives.

  • Care Planning Caregiving: Support for caregivers to reduce caregiver stress.

6. Behavioural Interventions:

  • Non-pharmacological approaches, including behavioural strategies and environmental modifications, are important components of care. These can help manage behavioural symptoms and improve the quality of life for both individuals with Alzheimer's and their caregivers.

7. Clinical Trials:

  • Participation in clinical trials for new medications and interventions is an option that some individuals may consider. Clinical trials contribute to the ongoing Alzheimer's research efforts to better understand and treat Alzheimer's disease.

Important Considerations:

  • Individualised Treatment: The choice of medication and treatment plan is highly individualised. It depends on the specific symptoms, the stage of the disease, and the individual's overall health.

  • Regular Monitoring: Healthcare providers typically monitor individuals regularly to assess the effectiveness of medications and make adjustments as needed.

  • Careful Evaluation of Risks and Benefits: Medications may have side effects, and the potential benefits must be carefully weighed against any risks, especially in older adults.

  • Early Intervention: Initiating treatment in the early stages of Alzheimer's may offer the most benefit, emphasising the importance of early detection and diagnosis.

It is important for individuals with Alzheimer's and their families to work closely with healthcare professionals to develop a comprehensive and personalised care plan.

Additionally, staying informed about advancements in Alzheimer's research and treatment options is valuable. As new therapies and approaches emerge, they may provide additional opportunities for improved symptom management and enhanced quality of life.

Alzheimer's Prevention:

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent Alzheimer's dementia, there are several brain-healthy lifestyle choices and habits that may help reduce the risk of developing the disease. Here are some evidence-based strategies:

  • Healthy Diet and Alzheimer's:

  • Mediterranean Diet: Emphasise a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats. This diet has been associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline.

  • Antioxidant-Rich Foods: Include foods high in antioxidants, such as berries, nuts, and leafy green vegetables.

  • Regular Physical Exercise and Alzheimer's:

  • Engage in regular physical activity, such as walking, swimming, or aerobics. Exercise has been linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline.

  • Mental Stimulation:

  • Keep the brain active by participating in mentally stimulating activities. This can include reading, puzzles, learning new skills, or engaging in hobbies.

  • Social Engagement:

  • Stay socially active and maintain strong social connections. Social engagement has been associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline.

  • Adequate Sleep:

  • Ensure you get enough quality sleep. Poor sleep patterns may contribute to cognitive decline.

  • Stress Management:

  • Practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises. Chronic stress may have negative effects on cognitive health.

  • Heart-Healthy Habits:

  • Manage conditions that affect the heart, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. These conditions can impact brain health.

  • Moderate Alcohol Consumption:

  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Excessive alcohol intake can contribute to cognitive decline.

  • No Smoking:

  • Give up smoking if you smoke. Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

  • Regular Health Check-ups:

  • Schedule regular check-ups with your healthcare provider to monitor and manage overall health, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and diabetes.

  • Cognitive Engagement Training:

  • Engage in activities that challenge and stimulate the mind, such as learning a new language, taking up a musical instrument, games, puzzles or participating in educational programs.

  • Genetic Counselling:

  • If there is a family history of Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, consider genetic counselling to understand potential risks and take proactive measures.

These strategies are not guaranteed to prevent Alzheimer's dementia, and individual responses may vary.

Additionally, it's crucial to consult with healthcare professionals for personalised advice based on individual health conditions and risk factors.

Adopting a combination of these lifestyle habits may contribute to overall well-being and brain health.

Alzheimer's and Society

  • Alzheimer's awareness and Alzheimer's education is important for managing, understanding Alzheimer's and preventing Alzheimer's dementia.

  • Share this Alzheimer’s information with friends and family to promote awareness on the community impact of Alzheimer’s, improving community support.

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Emma Najman, Longevity, Oncology Rehab & NDIS Registered Provider Physiotherapist, Pilates Instructor and Yoga Therapist
Emma Najman, Longevity, Oncology Rehab & NDIS Registered Provider Physiotherapist, Pilates Instructor and Yoga Therapist

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