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Health Awareness

Alzheimer's: Separating Fact from Fiction

By Kathy Pride,
Health Contributor

CBN.comAlzheimer’s disease—the label elicits strong responses. Some are true, and some are myths. Now is the time to replace fiction with fact as Alzheimer’s disease promises to become more prevalent as the population ages.

Consider these facts:

  • An estimated 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, a number that has more than doubled since 1980.
  • It is estimated that the number of Americans diagnosed with this disease could reach 16 million by the year 2050.
  • Gallup polls indicate that one in 10 Americans said they had a family member with the disease, and the numbers diminished to one in three in response to knowing someone with the diagnosis.
  • More than seven of 10 individuals with Alzheimer’s live at home, where almost 75 percent of their care is provided by family members or friends.
  • It is estimated that half of all nursing home residents suffer from Alzheimer’s or a related disorder.
  • The cost of providing care to this population is staggering: The average lifetime cost for a person with Alzheimer’s is $174,000.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that insidiously and gradually destroys one’s memory, ability to learn and reason, and make good judgments, and eventually destroys one’s ability to communicate and carry out activities of daily living. The personality changes that accompany this degenerative disease are also real and include confusion, suspicion, fearfulness, and dependency.

Dementia

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, describing a group of conditions that gradually destroy brain cells and lead to a decline in mental functioning over time.

The progression of the decline advances at differing rates, and the duration may be rapid. In some individuals, that could be as little as three years to requiring complete care to as long as 20 years.

My grandmother, who died in the late 1970s, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. At the time, we traveled the journey with her without the benefit of a diagnosis or understanding of the effect of the disease.

At first my grandmother forgot details, repeated herself frequently, or said things that really didn’t make sense. My mother, who for many years was her primary support, chalked it up to old age. Research has since demonstrated that memory loss is not a natural part of aging.

Myths Surrounding Alzheimer’s Disease

Education plays a huge role in dispelling myths about Alzheimer’s disease. According to the National Alzheimer’s Organization, the following myths still abound regarding this disease:

  1. Memory loss is a natural part of aging.

The experts researching Alzheimer’s disease now recognize that severe memory loss is a symptom of serious illness. In the past it was believed that memory loss was a natural part of getting older. It still remains a question whether memory naturally declines with aging, and searching for the answer to this question is a current research challenge.

  1. Alzheimer’s disease is not fatal.

Research has determined that Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease, beginning with the destruction of brain cells important for memory. Over time the loss of cells in other parts of the brain leads to failure of other major systems in the body. It is also common for older people to have other illnesses, making it difficult to attribute the cause of death to once specific factor.

  1. Drinking out of aluminum cans or cooking in aluminum cookware can lead to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Current research has not shown an exact role, if any, of aluminum in Alzheimer’s. Based on current findings, most researchers believe that there is not enough evidence to consider aluminum a risk factor as a cause of dementia.

  1. Aspartame causes memory loss.

The sweetener Aspartame has also been the subject of many research studies. Its effect on cognitive function and these studies have not found any scientific evidence to link it to memory loss.

  1. There are therapies available that will stop the progression of the disease.

While it is true that there are FDA-approved drugs that may temporarily improve or stabilize memory and thinking in some people, there is currently no medical treatment or cure to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. [Editor’s Note: See How Do I Reduce My Chances of Getting Alzheimer’s? for a different perspective.]

The focus continues to be on research, awareness, and education.

My mother is an information hound when it comes to Alzheimer’s because she knows that family history is a risk factor for the development of this disease. She also knows that early detection can improve the quality of life for both the individual with the diagnosis and those primarily responsible for that patient’s care.

Risk Factors

What is known about Alzheimer’s is that the disease involves the progression of brain cell failure. While a single reason has not been identified for this failure, several risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s have been identified and include the following:

  • Age. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after the age of 65, and is almost 50 percent after 85.
  • Family history. Those with a parent, brother, sister, or child with the disease are more likely to develop it, and the risk increases if more than one family member has been affected.
  • Genetics. Researchers have identified genes in two categories that increase the risk of developing the disease.
  • Other risk factors. These include head injury, a connection to heart health, and general healthy aging.

The Alzheimer’s Association has developed a checklist of common symptoms to help in the recognition between normal age-related memory changes and potential warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Association notes that there is no clear cut line between the two. The recommendation is to check and partner with a doctor if someone’s level of function seems to be changing.

Ten Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems with language
  • Disorientation to time and place
  • Poor or decreased judgment
  • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Misplacing things
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Changes in personality
  • Loss of initiative

Because there are other causes for the warning signs associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to consult a physician.

If you have concerns about memory, thinking skills, or changes in behavior with a family member, it is important to rule out causes other than dementia.

My mother is actively involved in managing her health and addressing concerns related to the development of this disease. She remembers the stress and frustration of caring for her mother as the disease progressed. She remembers the cloud of sadness as communication with her only living relative became shrouded in darkness and my grandmother became wrapped in the cocoon of her own solitary world. My mother is pro-active in her own care and in communicating her desires to me. I am an only child and will be actively involved in supporting my mother as she ages.

Benefits of an Early Diagnosis:

  • Time to make choices that will maximize one’s quality of life.
  • Decreased anxiety about unknown issues.
  • Earlier entry into the healthcare system and a higher likelihood of benefiting from treatment.
  • More time to actively plan for the future.

It is often difficult to take the first steps toward a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, but it is an important step. Denial is not going to make symptoms go away or life stop. Awareness will make one an active participant in decision making and a knowledgeable support person for those dealing with the disease.


Kathy PrideCopyright © Kathy Pride. Used by permission.

Kathy Pride is a nurse, patient advocate, parent educator, and mom who loves to encourage people.  Please visit her at www.tapestryministry.com.

 

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