The first thing people may think about when they have problems remembering things is Alzheimer’s disease. With today’s aging population, the number of people living with Alzheimer’s’ disease or other dementias is on the rise. But rest assured: memory loss does not necessarily mean you have Alzheimer’s.
Memory loss or Alzheimer’s disease?
Memory loss—particularly recent memory—is part of the aging process. For example, you may start to forget what TV show you watched last night. However, aging doesn’t usually cause short-term memory loss (remembering the name of the person you just met) or long-term memory loss (memories of your childhood). It can be frustrating to not remember a word or phone number; but these types of memory lapses are usually nothing serious.
Consult with your family doctor if you have the impression that your forgetfulness is negatively impacting your day-to-day activities and particularly if you are forgetting more and more things. Not remembering where you put your car keys is one thing—but finding them in your sugar jar is worrisome and may be the telltale sign of something more serious.
Memory loss is not just caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Many other conditions can also be the culprit. Alcoholism, depression, side effects of certain medications, and strokes are just some of the other causes of memory problems. Your doctor will be able to determine why you are seemingly more forgetful than before.
What are the warning signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease evolves in stages. It starts by slight memory loss. People with the illness then experience cognitive decline in terms of intellectual capacity and thoughts. As the disease progresses, people may even change personalities and behaviours.
There is no clear-cut test that can enable healthcare providers to determine if someone has Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, doctors can only definitively diagnose a patient with Alzheimer’s by examining the brain tissue upon the person’s passing. In the meantime, doctors can nevertheless establish a “probable” diagnosis by eliminating the likelihood of other conditions that are causing a decline in cognitive capacity. There are a variety of different memory and cognitive tests that can be performed on patients. Blood tests and brain scans can also be used to evaluate Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
Alzheimer’s progression varies from patient to patient: life expectancy can be as short as 5 years or as long as 20 years. In general, a person that is experiencing the initial onset of Alzheimer’s may have problems performing simple mathematical calculations, such as paying for purchases or following a well-known recipe.
A person may also have trouble pronouncing or choosing the right words, or even understanding simple sentences. As the illness evolves, the person can become easily disoriented or confused; anxiety may disturb sleep or cause them to become nervous. Visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory hallucinations may occur.
Even if a person initially doesn’t have any issues with short-term memory, as the illness evolves, they begin to have inability to memorize anything. The patient can also become incapable of talking, walking or even taking care of their basic hygiene needs. People with Alzheimer’s disease often die from an infection.
What are the causes of Alzheimer’s disease?
Several changes occur in the brain structure of people with Alzheimer’s. Some cells degenerate and others disappear entirely. When specialists analyze the person’s brain, they often notice brain lesions—irregular dark or light spots—that can, over time, kill healthy brain cells.
The causes of these changes still remain obscure. However, research had identified several factors that may influence how Alzheimer’s evolves. For example, some brain cells produce acetylcholine, a chemical messenger or neurotransmitter that plays an important role in brain and muscle function. People suffering from Alzheimer’s disease tend to have low levels of acetylcholine. Without normal levels of acetylcholine, intercellular communication is significantly compromised. Since acetylcholine is required for a person’s memory, a lack of this chemical messenger may explain why people with Alzheimer’s disease may become increasingly forgetful.
Some forms of Alzheimer’s are hereditary; however, in 90 to 95% of known cases, the role hereditary plays is not clearly established and is still under extensive research.
Can Alzheimer’s be treated?
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Some commercially available medications can slow down its progress. Unfortunately, they cannot stop the degenerative impact of the illness on brain tissue.
Medication should be taken as soon as a doctor notices the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in a patient as it is more effective at the onset of the disease. Apart from medication, the support of a psychologist is critical for both the patient and caregivers.
If you or a family member has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and prescribed specific medication, don’t hesitate to talk to your pharmacist about the side effects and what to expect.
What resources are available?
Living with or caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can be very difficult. As the illness evolves, the person becomes increasingly dependent on loved ones. In fact, some caregivers must completely oversee the person’s life. Changes to the person’s personality, which often are part of Alzheimer’s slow, degenerative process, can add a psychological stress that can be difficult to manage for family and friends. Whether you are a member of the family, a friend, volunteer or healthcare provider, you may one day feel completely exhausted by the complexity of helping someone with Alzheimer’s.
Resources are available for both people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. The Alzheimer Society of Canada (www.alzheimer.ca) is a reliable resource. On the organization’s website, you can find a wealth of information, news and forums in both English and French. In addition, provincial chapters offer support groups, tips with a counsellor by phone, resource centres and educational programs. Simply contact a regional office to get more details.
Alzheimer’s is a difficult disease for everyone involved. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the Alzheimer Society of Canada or your healthcare provider if you need help!