Smart-Take: Alzheimer's Disease

Dementia is a catch-all term for diseases of the brain that impact memory and cognition. Alzheimer’s is the most common of those, comprising up to 80 percent of dementia diagnoses, and it is fatal.

The onset of the disease can occur as early as the 30s and 40s—but even the early-onset form of the disease (representing about five percent of overall Alzheimer's patients) typically does not strike until patients are in their 50s. Most often, Alzheimer's hits adults after age 65.

The most common early symptom is an inability to recall recently-learned information—because the geography of the brain that facilitates learning is the part that deteriorates first. Other early symptoms include confusion with time or spatial relationships, an inability to complete common tasks or solve problems, and decreased judgment. (Download the 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s or learn more here.)

Alzheimer's Stages and Symptoms
Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, and is usually talked about and treated in three general stages.

Early-Stage Alzheimer’s
While people in the early stages of the disease may still function and interact as usual, memory and concentration problems are typically starting to occur, including:

  • Trouble remembering names, recently-read materials, or finding the right word
  • Losing or misplacing things
  • Increasing trouble with organizing, planning, or performing tasks

Middle-Stage Alzheimer’s
In the early part of this stage, patients can often recall memories and activities in great detail from their past, but have incrementally more trouble with day-to-day tasks like bill-paying. Later in the progression of this stage, additional detail will be lost from their personal history, and friends and family may notice the toll that the frustration is taking on their loved one. Symptoms include:

  • Confusing words, or what day, season, or time it is
  • Feeling moody, irritated, or withdrawn, often stemming from a lessened ability to communicate
  • Needing help to choose the right clothing
  • Behavioral changes like delusions or compulsivity (shredding tissues, folding and refolding napkins)
  • Changing sleep patterns and an increased risk of wandering (and becoming lost)
  • Trouble controlling bladder and bowel function

Late-Stage Alzheimer’s
In the final stages of this progression, patients will lose the ability to interact and, ultimately, to control their own movement. Patients will require full-time help, including:

  • An inability to care for themselves (daily activities, eating, drinking, washing)
  • Loss of motor control (walking, sitting up, eventually swallowing)
  • Increased susceptibility to infection—especially pneumonia

Caring for an Alzheimer's Patient

Caregivers carry an especially difficult burden providing for the physical and emotional needs of Alzheimer's patients. Your role is wide-ranging: from helping newly-diagnosed, early-stage patients plan for the future, to telling others about the diagnosis; and from making later-stage decisions about what kind of help a patient needs and when, to working to preserve your loved one's dignity.
This can be challenging on many fronts, but can be especially painful when behavioral changes make your loved one unrecognizable. The Alzheimer's Association provides these 5 tips for handling these situations: 

  • Try not to take behaviors personally.
  • Remain patient and calm.
  • Explore pain as a trigger.
  • Don't argue or try to convince.
  • Accept behaviors as a reality of the disease and try to work through it.

For more detail on providing care at each stage, visit: www.alz.org/care