By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease there’s a lot that remains unknown. As of yet, there’s no known cure and researchers aren’t sure why some cases are sporadic and why others can be traced through the family.
Wendy Betley, Alzheimer’s Association program director, said there are 10 warning signs people should be aware of. One of the most known symptoms is memory loss that disrupts daily life, like forgetting an important date or event. They may repeat their questions several times or forget recently acquired information like the name of someone they just met.
Betley said some of these are typical with age, but they could also be the first sign of the disease. Not all the symptoms have to do with memory loss she said. Sometimes people have trouble with visual images and their depth perception may be off. Maybe you’ll be driving with someone and they stop a few yards before the stop sign, this could be because they’re misjudging their spatial distance she explained.
People with early-onset signs may also have challenges in planning or solving problems. Or they demonstrate confusion with a time or place. Another sign is a change in mood or personality.
“It really affects a whole bunch more,” she said. “It affects the brain and we use the brain for everything.”
The first step, Betley said is to speak with a physician if someone is showing some or all of these symptoms. Memory loss isn’t limited to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Depression and dehydration could also be causes of memory loss. It could also be a sign of a head injury.
The second step is to reach out and get involved. Often, after a diagnosis, people get hit with a sense of low self-esteem. People isolate themselves or pull away from friends because they’re ashamed or unsure how to address the situation.
“If they isolate themselves they increase the risk of depression,” said Betley.
People will focus on all the things they can’t do, instead of all the things they can do, she said. By reaching out to organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association people can get connected with support groups and receive an education.
There’s the traditional support group, Betley said, but there’s also a 24/7 helpline. By calling 1-800-272-3900, caregivers can get assistance or information whenever. It can be emotionally taxing being a caregiver, Betley said and people can call the helpline if they need some encouragement.
The educational classes also provide information and assistance. Caregivers can take classes on how to care for their loved one. And together they can learn more about the disease and make plans.
The goal of all the classes is to raise awareness and help prep the individual and their caregiver for the future. They address how to handle the early to later stages as the disease progresses, as the rate of progression varies per individual.
“That’s the challenge with the disease, everybody is different,” she said. “We don’t know what we don’t know [and] it’s better to be prepared.”
Alzheimer’s can be passed on through lineage or occur sporadically. Some people carry the gene but do not develop the disease, Betley said. However, if it’s in the family, people are likely to develop early signs sooner whereas in most sporadic cases the first signs appear over the age of 65.
“Sometimes it does just kind of pops up and we don’t know why,” Betley said.
To improve the stigma, Betley said people should educate themselves on the disease and create a space of understanding. She added that some patience and compassion for the caregiver and the one diagnosed can make things easier too. And to remember, people need to take care of their brain the way they take care of their heart, Betley said.