What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia. This variant accounts for approximately 70% of all dementia cases. It is a neurodegenerative disorder that is characterized by progressive memory loss and altered cognitive processes that interfere with daily functioning.
What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s Disease is currently unknown, however, brain changes and the addition of plaques and tangles (typically visible on an MRI machine) appear to be linked to it. Whether these changes, plaques, and tangles are a cause of the disease or a result of it is up for debate.
Regardless, new treatments are always being developed that may shave off some of the symptoms. These treatments are unable to cure this disease, however, they may reduce or temporarily halt the effects of it – for some people.
As a result, individuals with this condition may live longer and have a better quality of life. The good news is that studies are constantly being conducted throughout the world to find more effective ways to delay the onset of this disease and reduce its symptoms/effects.
At What Age Does Alzheimer’s Disease Usually Present?
Alzheimer’s Disease usually presents during the later years – i.e. 65 and older, however, some people develop it before the age of 65. When this occurs, it’s referred to as early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In fact, approximately 200,000 people in their 50s and early 60s are diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease every year, so it’s not just an “old person’s disease.” It is also important to understand that this condition is not a normal part of the aging process – even though some of the symptoms mimic the symptoms of aging – i.e. memory problems, confusion or disorientation, and processing issues.
How is Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosed?
To diagnose Alzheimer’s Disease, a physician, neurologist (a doctor that treats brain conditions), or geriatrician (a doctor that treats issues associated with aging) reviews the individual’s medical history and asks about his/her medications. He/she also asks the individual to describe the symptoms he/she is having in detail.
This doctor also conducts several tests (i.e. laboratory, psychological, MRIs, and/or brain-imaging) to evaluate the individual’s memory – short-term and long-term, thought processes, and ability to function on a daily basis.
These tests, along with observation and medical histories help the doctor identify mood and behavioral changes, and “rule out” other causes for the memory and cognitive impairment, such as another form of dementia. Unfortunately, the only way to definitively diagnose this disease is to examine the individual’s brain tissue after death.
What Happens During the Various Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease?
During the early stages, symptoms typically involve short-term memory loss and cognitive delays, because this disease affects the part of the brain responsible for remembering events and learning new information. For instance, a person with this disease may initially have a hard time remembering things like where he/she placed his/her keys. The truth is as we age our bodies and minds also age, which means we may occasionally forget things or have problems processing information. That is a normal part of aging.
However, as the disease progresses, symptoms typically involve disorientation, extreme confusion when it comes to events, people, and timeframes, irritability, aggression, changes in mood, personality, and behavior, paranoia/suspicion towards loved ones and friends, difficulty speaking and swallowing, mobility issues, and severe short-term and long-term memory loss.
As the condition continues to worsen, it is common for people to isolate themselves from friends, family, and other loved ones. It’s also common for them to have a hard time recognizing people, places, and things they were once familiar with – i.e. sisters, brothers, pets, children, spouses – present and past, close friends, parents, co-workers, locations, appointments, daily tasks, etc.
During the end stage, the loss of bodily function and the deterioration of brain cells leads to death. Keep in mind that the end stage may last a couple of weeks to a couple of years – it just depends on the individual.
What is the Average Life Expectancy for Alzheimer’s Disease Patients?
The average life expectancy following the initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis is between 8 and 10 years, however, it can be a short as a few years or as long as two decades. It is also important to understand that this condition can go undiagnosed for years. In fact, it usually takes approximately 3 years to be officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease once the symptoms begin.
What Non-Medicine Methods Are Used in Alzheimer’s Therapy?
There are no known treatments to stop or reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, however, there are techniques that may temporarily ease the symptoms. Psychotherapists often use non-medicine approaches like mental stimulation, exercise, aromatherapy, a healthy diet and proper sleep, lifestyle changes, pet therapy, music therapy, scrapbooking, religious activities, vitamin supplementation, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and memory-strengthening games to delay cognitive-based symptoms.
Listed below are some detailed descriptions of the benefits of non-medicine therapy methods:
Music therapy may help those with Alzheimer’s Disease. Studies show that people tend to associate music or songs with specific memories, therefore, music therapy is a good way to help someone with Alzheimer’s Disease recall past events and people without added stress. Music therapy may also help improve the mood of an Alzheimer’s patient and help him/her relax.
Art therapy may trigger an Alzheimer’s patient’s imagination and, as a result, provide him/her with a “safe” outlet to express feelings and wishes that are hard to articulate.
Aromatherapy involves using oils to calm the mind, so Alzheimer’s patients may benefit from this non-traditional therapy. Aromatherapy is known for triggering memories and helping people feel connected to the world around them.
Studies suggest that pet therapy may reduce depression and increase self-esteem and self-confidence in those with Alzheimer’s Disease. It is important, however, to make sure that the individual actually likes animals before pet therapy is introduced to him/her. Also, make sure that the right animal is selected for the individual – one that matches the patient’s temperament and activity level.
A dog may be especially beneficial for someone, who has good mobility and can go on walks with the pet. However, if the person does not have good coordination or mobility, a cat or lap dog may be a better option for him/her. Regardless of the pet, it may bring joy, relief, and a sense of responsibility to a person suffering from this condition.
Religion, in general, can be extremely calming to a person suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. It can also provide hope and peace to someone, who feels hopeless and distressed. Moreover, going to religious events like church services and socials can help a person with this condition feel more connected to others. Lastly, it’s a good way to get an Alzheimer’s patient out of the house and encourage them to be more social.
Scrapbooking is a great way to help an Alzheimer’s patient recall people, places, and events. A therapist may use scrapbooking to strengthen your loved one’s memory by asking family members and friends to provide old and more recent pictures of events, activities, and people. Reminiscing may provide joy to someone, who spends most of his/her life confused and disoriented.
What Medications are Used to Treat Alzheimer’s Disease?
Psychiatrists and other medical doctors typically prescribe medications treat memory loss, behavior changes, sleep problems, and other Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Some of the medications used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease include:
- Celexa, Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft – for irritability, mood swings, and depression
- Xanax, BuSpar, Ativan, and Serax – for anxiety and restlessness
- Abilify, Haldol, and Zyprexa – for confusion, aggression, anger, agitation, delusions, and hallucinations
Note: These medications do not stop the progression of the disease, however, they may prevent the symptoms from getting too bad too quickly. In addition, keep in mind that all medications have side-effects – side-effects that may affect older people differently than younger ones.
***The medications listed above have been approved by the FDA to treat Alzheimer’s Disease. These medications work by regulating the neurotransmitters, brain chemicals, in the body that are responsible for sending messages/signals from one synapse to another.
Should I Take My Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease to a Therapist?
Yes! An Alzheimer’s therapist can provide a great sense of relief and support to both you and your loved one. During therapy, your loved one learns how to better manage his/her symptoms. And, although the symptoms are initially mild, over time they will progress until they are debilitating. When that time arrives, both you and your loved one will need support and specialized services.
The good news is that a properly trained therapist can help your loved one cope with the memory loss, confusion, disorientation, anger, and mood fluctuations that often accompany this disease. As mentioned above, there are also prescription medications that may improve cognitive functions and memory in those with moderate-to-severe cases of Alzheimer’s Disease.
And, although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease at this time, a therapist can make the progression of this disease as painless, as possible – for you and your loved one. Most of all, a therapist can answer any questions about what to expect, how to properly care for your loved, and what end-of-life options are available for him/her when he/she reaches the end stage.
What Should I Look for In a Therapist?
It’s best to look for a therapist, who has extensive training and experience in Alzheimer’s therapy. More specifically, the therapist should have experience treating those with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. In addition, it’s important that the therapist meshes with you and your loved one because you will be the one handling the care of him/her.
Both you and your loved one must have faith and confidence in the therapist. But, most of all, you both must trust the therapist – if not, then therapy will be unsuccessful. The good news is that TherapyTribe can make your search for a qualified therapist a lot easier simply by looking at our directory to find a good therapist in your area that specializes in Alzheimer’s Disease.
Alzheimer’s Association. (2019). Alzheimer’s and dementia. Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures
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Holland, K. (2016). Life expectancy and long-term outlook for Alzheimer’s Disease. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/alzheimers-disease/life-expectancy
Mayo Clinic. (2019). Diagnosing Alzheimer’s: How Alzheimer’s is diagnosed. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20048075
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