Alzheimer’s Disease For Caregivers

September is World Alzheimer’s Month. There are currently more than 5 million people over the age of 65 in the United States who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and an estimated 44 million worldwide. Alzheimer’s is a kind of progressive dementia that affects memory, cognitive thinking, behavior and spatial awareness. Alzheimer’s patients live eight years, on average, after their symptoms emerge, but depending on age and other health conditions, they can survive anywhere from four to 20 years. Since patients with moderate to severe dementia usually require special care, ranging from constant supervision to management of difficult behavior to help with activities of daily living, family caregivers risk poor health, depression and chronic illness. Companion homecare solutions are a vital source of respite care to Alzheimer’s patients so their caregivers can perform vital self-care such as medical visits, recreation and even a good night’s sleep.

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease

“Image courtesy of the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health”
“Image courtesy of the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health”

Alzheimer’s develops in three stages: an early stage that goes unnoticed while the brain begins its transformation unseen; the middle stage which features symptoms that range from memory loss to cognitive impairment to behavioral problems; and the final stage which can see a loved one be unable to perform the daily activities of living and lose all memory of family, friends and self. While mild memory loss can be a normal part of aging – with all those years to keep track of, who wouldn’t forget some details? – Alzheimer’s is something else altogether. The most significant known risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s is growing old, and approximately 95% of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and over. (A much smaller fraction of Alzheimer’s patients have early onset Alzheimer’s, which can strike in the 40s or 50s. There are also cases caused by genetics, with a few hundred families worldwide carrying rare genes that directly cause the disease. The people who have inherited these rare genes often develop symptoms in their 30s, 40s and 50s, with multiple members of each generation developing what is called “familial Alzheimer’s disease.”)
In 1906, Dr. Alois Alzheimer found alterations in the brain tissue of a female patient who had died of an unfamiliar mental illness. She had exhibited symptoms of memory loss, language problems, and erratic behavior. After her death, he inspected her brain and found many abnormal clumps in the tissue. Doctors in later decades, using more powerful microscopes, discovered the clumps were comprised of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Plaques and tangles of fibers in the brain are two of the main physical features of the disease, meaning that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can’t be concretely identified until after the patient’s death. The third feature is the loss of the connections between neurons (or nerve cells) in the brain that communicate with the rest of the brain and body. Alzheimer’s disease disrupts both the way electrical charges travel within cells and the activity of neurotransmitters, causing them to work less efficiently, leading to dysfunction and cell death. The exchange of these charges forms the basis of memories, thoughts, and feelings in the brain. An adult human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, that branch into a network of connections at more than 100 trillion points. Over the course of early, middle and late stage Alzheimer’s, the growth of plaques and tangles in the brain along with extensive nerve cell death can result in significant shrinkage in the volume of the brain, with the greatest decrease in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is where information becomes short-term memory, and short-term memory becomes long-term memory, the foundation of identity. Further, Alzheimer’s acts cruelly on the area that processes new information, and elsewhere the plaque and fibers blocks the transit of vital signals from one neuron to the other. Watch the Alzheimer’s Association’s tour of the brain to see how the disease impacts a healthy brain as it progresses: Alzheimer’s Association Brain Tour.

Please return to the Casa Companion Homecare Solutions Blog next week for Part 2 of World Alzheimer’s Month: Alzheimer’s For Caregivers.