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Recognizing the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

  • Category: Skilled Nursing
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  • Written By: Allied Services Integrated Health
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month, prompting an opportunity to raise awareness of specific disease processes that can detrimentally affect how the brain works. It may first be helpful to understand the language around these health risks. Dementia is a general medical term used to describe a decline in mental ability, or cognitive function, often characterized by a decline in memory, problem-solving, and reasoning. Alzheimer’s is one specific disease that causes dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, and 1 in 9 people 65 and older has a form of dementia.

We don’t yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s dementia; however, scientists currently suggest genetic factors, and environmental/lifestyle influences may be linked to the disease. Scientists and medical professionals do know that it is a progressive neurologic disorder that causes changes in overall brain function, atrophy or shrinking of brain tissue leading to brain cell death. While there is no one complete way to diagnose the disease, doctors may use laboratory tests, brain scans/imagery and neurological tests to determine a diagnosis. It is important to note; however, that Alzheimer’s disease is not considered a normal process of aging. In most cases, Alzheimer’s begins after the age of 65. In cases where a person shows signs of the disease prior to 65, it is referred to as ‘early onset Alzheimer’s’.

Common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include changes in the areas of:

  • Memory: forgetting scheduled events, misplacing objects, repeating questions or statements, forgetting conversations.
  • Language: word finding difficulties, difficulty understanding questions, unable to describe situations.
  • Problem solving and reasoning: trouble completing daily tasks, trouble working with numbers or money, difficulty with medication management.
  • Judgment and concentration: poor planning skills, decreased concentration/easily distracted, difficulty with multitasking.
  • Personality and behavior: becoming socially withdrawn, depression, experiencing mood swings, displaying inappropriate behaviors.

As noted earlier, Alzheimer’s disease is progressive in nature. Over time, the disease may advance in severity to the point where it affects the person’s ability to function independently. Someone experiencing initial signs of Alzheimer’s may not be able to recognize the changes in themselves. Often, family members and people in regular contact with them may be better placed to recognize and keep track of progressing symptoms.

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms described above, it is recommended to contact your primary physician with questions and concerns. A physician may then refer the person for laboratory and imaging tests that may help identify the disease causing the dementia-like symptoms or rule out other potential medical issues.

While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are medications available that can potentially help combat the progression of the disease. These medications are designed to temporarily improve symptoms or slow the overall progression of the disease process. With successful treatment, the individual can maintain and preserve aspects of their cognitive abilities leading to extended independence and greater quality of life. It is important to note that no two cases of Alzheimer’s will progress in the same manner, time frame or severity level; individuals may have mild symptoms for years, while other may progress to severe deficits in a much quicker time frame.

Receiving an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the inevitable progression of the disease can be heartbreaking for the individual, their family members and caregivers. Knowing the symptoms is an important first step to finding the right care. There are robust resources both nationally and locally for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease. There are local support groups, national helplines, family education programs, memory care programs, and home health visitors that may be useful. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association website to discover both local and national resources.

Jeff Orzel, M.S., CCC-SLP, is a speech language pathologist working with adult and geriatric patients at Allied Services Skilled Nursing Center in Scranton. 

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