- Written by Janis Merrell, Editor of The Good Life
- Published: 21 November 2019
President Ronald Reagan designated November as Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month in 1983 with the goal of helping the public become more educated about the disease, which affected less than 2 million people in the U.S. at that time. The former president himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this irreversible, progressive brain disease now affects an estimated 5.7 million Americans. In more than 90% of people with Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia, symptoms do not appear until after age 60. The incidence of the disease increases with age and doubles every 5 years beyond age 65. It is the sixth leading cause of death among all adults and the fifth leading cause for those aged 65 or older. Also, adjusting for age, rates of Alzheimer’s disease deaths increased more than 50% between 1999 and 2014.
Alzheimer’s is also a costly disease: In 2018, total payments for health care, long-term care, and hospice for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias were estimated to be $277 billion.
Separately, in 2018 more than an estimated 16 million Americans were providing more than 18.4 billion hours of unpaid care for family and friends with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. That care has an estimated worth of $232 billion, although these caregivers are not compensated. Caregivers of people with dementia also have an increased risk of stress, depression, unhealthy behaviors, and poor attention to their own health, such as delaying their own medical appointments.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the brain has 100 billion nerve cells called neurons and each nerve cell connects with many others to form communication networks. Each group of nerve cells has a special job. Keeping things running requires coordination. Plaques (deposits of a protein fragment that build up in the spaces between nerve cells) and tangles (twisted fibers of a protein that build up inside cells) seem to damage and kill nerve cells. Although most people develop some plaques and tangles as they age, people with Alzheimer’s tend to develop far more in a predictable pattern, beginning with the areas important for memory, and then spreading. This blocks communication among nerve cells that eventually causes memory failure, personality changes, and problems carrying out daily activities.
Why one person develops Alzheimer’s and another doesn’t is not completely understood, although researchers believe the causes for Alzheimer’s include genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.
There are generally three stages of Alzheimer’s: mild or early stage, moderate or middle stage, and severe or late stage.
Mild stage Alzheimer’s includes symptoms such as problems coming up with the right word or name, trouble remembering names when introduced to new people, challenges performing tasks in social or work settings, forgetting material that one has just read, losing or misplacing a valuable object, and increasing trouble with planning or organizing.
Moderate Alzheimer’s (which is typically the longest stage and can last for many years) includes symptoms such as forgetfulness of events or about one’s own personal history; feeling moody or withdrawn (especially in socially or mentally challenging situations); being unable to recall one’s own address, telephone number, or the high school or college from which they graduated; confusion around time and location; needing help choosing appropriate clothing; loss of bladder and bowel control; changes in sleep patterns; an increased risk of wandering and becoming lost; and personality and behavioural changes including suspiciousness and delusions or compulsive, repetitive behavior such as tissue shredding or hand-wringing.
Severe Alzheimer’s is the final stage where one loses the ability to respond to their environment, carry on conversation, control movement, and communicate that they are in pain. Significant personality changes may take place and individuals need the most help with activities, including round-the clock assistance.
In more than 90% of people with Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia, symptoms do not appear until after age 60.
What to do if you suspect you or a loved one has Alzheimer’s.
Even though it is scary, there are major benefits to getting an earlier diagnosis. You can assess whether you or a loved one are exhibiting the 10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s by visiting the Alzheimer's Association website. If you or a loved one notice any of the symptoms, make an appointment with your or your loved one’s doctor. First of all, the symptoms could be caused by another, treatable condition. If Alzheimer’s is the cause, current medications can lessen symptoms of memory loss and confusion (for a limited time). Early diagnosis also makes you or a loved one more eligible for a wider variety of clinical trials, and you can make lifestyle changes that may help preserve cognitive function longer. You can also maximize your time with friends and family and decide how you want to spend your remaining time that will make you feel the most fulfilled. In addition, you can plan for the future including deciding what kind of care you want when you need it, and what you want to happen to your assets.
LifePath can help.