Understanding Alzheimer’s

By: Bal Agrawal and Christine Law

Your parent or elderly loved one has probably always been a source of inspiration for you. But nowadays, are they also a source of concern? If they have grown increasingly forgetful, or are taking longer to perform everyday tasks or find the right word to express thoughts, it’s important not to automatically write off these changes as “senior moments.” Yes, they may be just that. But they could also be early signs of dementia—an impairment of memory and thinking—or Alzheimer’s, a specific type of dementia affecting the brain areas that control thought, language, and memory.

If you notice any troubling shifts in your loved one’s behavior [listed below], speak with your loved one’s primary care physician. “Some cognitive problems cannot be picked up in routine appointments, which is why being honest and mentioning any concerns about memory changes is important,” says Dr. Marie A. Bernard, deputy director of the National Institute of Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Your loved one may need to undergo additional tests to determine the cause of their particular symptoms. A number of problems may make elderly people confused, such as medication errors or depression. “These issues may be reversible with early detection and treatment,” stresses Dr. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health and author of The Dementia Caregiver: A Guide to Caring for Someone with Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Neurocognitive Disorders. If other causes are ruled out and Alzheimer’s or a related dementia is suspected, your senior may be referred to a neurologist or other specialist for a definite diagnosis.

While it’s daunting to learn that a loved one has Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, don’t despair. Although there have been no breakthroughs in treatment since the early 2000s, there are several drugs that, used on their own or in various combinations, can help slow dementia-related declines. Dr. Howard Fillit, Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (, has been involved in the research and development of new drugs for Alzheimer’s and related dementias since the first clinical trials in the early 1980s. “We support biotech companies working to develop drugs that will prevent, treat, and cure Alzheimer’s disease. Currently we have 100 different drug programs and 24 clinical trials in progress, with a dedicated team of Ph.D. scientists overseeing the programs.” There’s also hope that more treatments will join them. “The good news is that there have never been more candidates in the pipeline,” says John Dwyer, President of the Global Alzheimer’s Platform Foundation. In fact, he notes, some 80 possible treatments, from injections to nasal sprays, are in the mid to late phases of clinical trials. One of the most promising drugs being tested may erase a type of plaque that can build up in the brain and lead to Alzheimer’s symptoms. Another treatment being tested works at the genetic level, lessening the risk of Alzheimer’s in people with a hereditary predisposition to the disease.

So do remain optimistic. Be practical and proactive as well, by making a plan for your loved one’s care. During the later stages of Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, he’ll need much more support. Making arrangements early on, while he retains cognitive function, will help ensure his safety and comfort. “Just because we don’t have a cure for people with dementia,” says Dr. Agronin, “doesn’t mean there isn’t an enormous amount we can do to improve their quality of life.”

One of the best ways to help a parent or loved one is to be cognizant of the early symptoms of dementia.

Stay alert to changes like these:

Disruptive memory loss. Is your loved one forgetting things—especially things he recently learned—or asking the same question repeatedly? Is he increasingly relying on lists or electronic devices to keep track of things he needs to remember?

Trouble solving problems, or in making and following plans. This can include difficulty with paying bills and working with numbers.

Struggling with routine tasks like playing a game he already knows or driving to a familiar location.

Difficulty with the concepts of time and place. Your loved one may mix up the seasons, lose track of dates, or can’t remember where he is or how he came to be there. He may also have difficulty understanding events that took place in the past, or are scheduled for a future date.

Confusion with spatial relationships or visual images. Problems with driving, reading, sizing up distances, or perceiving colors or contrast are all cause for concern.

Trouble with writing or speaking. People with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia may repeat themselves or call objects by incorrect names (“cold box” for “refrigerator,” for instance).

Misplacing objects and being unable to retrace his steps. This is typical of people with Alzheimer’s disease and may happen more often as the disease progresses.

A decline in judgment. Grooming may lapse, and your loved one may do questionable things like send money to an e-mail scammer.

Reclusiveness. Stay alert to your senior’s social habits – people with dementia sometimes stop seeing friends, pursuing hobbies, and mingling with people in other ways.

Personality and emotional changes. Anxiety, suspicion, confusion, fear, and depression may occur. Unfamiliar settings may cause distress, and you may find that your loved one gets upset more easily than in the past.

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