November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

When is a “senior moment” more than just occasional forgetfulness? As individuals age, it is not unusual to temporarily misplace the car keys or remote control. When these lapses become serious enough to interfere with daily life, though, concerns begin to surface that some form of dementia may be the culprit.
National Alzheimer’s Disease Month was officially established by Ronald Reagan in 1983, eleven years before he himself was diagnosed with the disease. While there is no known cure at this time, researchers continue to study the cause and treatment of the disease, the discovery of which dates back to 1906. At that time, German physician Alois Alzheimer, discovered dramatic shrinkage and abnormal deposits in and around nerve cells in the brain while performing an autopsy on a patient who had exhibited memory loss and steadily worsening psychological changes. Because of Alzheimer’s trailblazing work linking physical symptoms to microscopic changes in the brain, the disease that now accounts for 60-80% of diagnosed cases of dementia today was given his name in 1910 by Emil Kraepelin, a German psychiatrist who had worked with Dr. Alzheimer prior to his death in 1915.
It is estimated that nearly five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Of those, some 200,000 are believed to have younger-onset Alzheimer’s, which can affect people in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Approximately 500,000 people die annually because they have the disease, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. The statistics for women are even scarier. Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. In her 60’s, a woman’s lifetime estimated risk of developing Alzheimer’s is one in six, as compared to breast cancer, which is one in eleven.
While Alzheimer’s disease accounts for a vast majority of diagnosed dementia cases, it is important to note that there are other causes that can mimic Alzheimer’s symptoms. Dr. Noel Robitaille, a physician who operated a medical clinic in La Porte City for more than 30 years, noted that vascular diementia, which is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, is another common cause of dimentia, particularly when a person reaches 80-85 years of age.
What makes Alzheimer’s disease so devastating is the inexorable progression of dementia symptoms that occur over time. While memory loss in its early stages is mild, as individuals with Alzheimer’s progress into later stages, they lose the ability to hold a conversation or even respond to their environment. On average, those with Alzheimer’s live eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to those around them, though survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on a person’s age and other health conditions.
Because Alzheimer’s is such a complex disease, the number of risk factors and the importance of each can vary widely from person to person. Factors that can have an impact include a person’s age, genetic makeup, environment and the lifestyle they lead. While age and genetics may be beyond humanity’s control, scientists continue to study risk factors related to those that can be altered- environment and lifestyle. There are numerous clinical trials examining the role diet and physical and mental exercises can play in delaying or preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the physical activities Dr. Robitaille recommends include workouts in the gym, bicycling, swimming and dancing. He noted that square dancing, in particular, is a physical activity that also engages the brain, as each dancer attempts to complete the proper steps in sequence with their partner.
Mental exercise is also important. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku (see page 5 in this edition of The Progress Review), cards games such as Bridge and other board games like chess are all good exercises to keep the brain engaged, Dr. Robitaille added. Other activities for the ambitious include learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument.
Dr. Robitaille cautions not to overlook the benefits of social activity, as well, be it as a member of a church choir or devoting time to volunteer at a hospital or nursing home.
“You will meet people there who appreciate your visit and can become real friends with you,” he added.
The medical community is in agreement that when it comes to Alzheimer’s, an early diagnosis is best, as it allows the patient to receive the maximum benefit from available treatments. It also provides families more time to plan for the future and make the most of available support services.
For more than 30 years, The 36 Hour Day, a national bestselling book, has been the trusted bible for families dealing with dementia. Along with the latest information on its causes, the book includes information on how to manage dementia in its early stages. It also addresses how to find appropriate living arrangements for the person who has dementia when home care is no longer an option.
Finding the right support services and making the most of each day is a sentiment echoed by Dr. Robitaille:
“If you [or family members] realize there are some small problems indicating [an Alzheimer’s diagnosis] is a possibility, don’t act or live in a state of depression now. Enjoy each day. Do not stay enclosed inside four walls. Go out. Go to a symphony, a hockey game or ballgame or go visit friends. Start now,” he said.

10 Warning Signs

The following warning signs are indicators that could signal someone is suffering from a form of dementia. This list is provided for information purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified professional.
Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
Challenges in planning or solving problems.
Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.
Confusion with time or place.
Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
New problems with words in speaking or writing.
Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
Decreased or poor judgment.
Withdrawal from work or social activities.
Changes in mood and personality.
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