Somewhere around 50 million Americans will hit the road this Thanksgiving, headed home for the holiday. Whether your trip is just up the road a piece, or half way across the continent, catching up with family over the long holiday weekend can be revealing.
No, we’re not talking about simmering sibling rivalries! We’re talking about the realization that dear old indestructible Dad isn’t processing things as well as he used to. Or that Mom seems to be more than a little confused.
Your first thought is likely to be: Is it dementia? While we often joke about misplaced keys and dementia, the truth is dementia is much more than missing keys. It is, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the loss of cognitive functioning — the ability to think, remember, problem solve or reason — to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.
The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which is responsible for 60 to 80 percent of all cases. Other dementia-related diseases include Huntington’s disease, Lewy body syndrome, and vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke. Although dementia is associated with aging (and most victims of dementia are over the age of 65), dementia is not a “natural part” of growing older. It is a disease, for which, sadly, there is no cure.
Some medical conditions can cause symptoms that are like dementia. These include poorly controlled diabetes, thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, and atherosclerosis. However, treating these conditions can reduce or even eliminate the symptoms.
Today, there are 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s. It is the sixth-leading cause of death, killing more people annually than breast and prostate cancer combined. Every 65 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops the disease. But, and this is an important point, early diagnosis can make a difference. If you suspect there’s something going on with Mom or Dad, getting a diagnosis is important. Here are 10 early signs and symptoms to watch for, courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association:
Memory loss that disrupts daily life. This can include forgetting important dates or events, asking for the same information repeatedly, or increased reliance on memory aids, such as notes, computers or family members. Not a Sign: Forgetting an appointment but remembering it later.
Difficulty planning or solving problems. This includes things like being unable to follow a recipe or keeping track of monthly bills, trouble concentrating or taking much longer to perform tasks that require thinking. Not a Sign: Making an occasional math error when balancing a checkbook.
Trouble completing familiar tasks. People with Alzheimer’s often find it hard to complete activities of daily living, such as driving to a familiar location, managing a budget at work, or remembering the rules of an oft-played game. Not a Sign: Sometimes needing help to record a TV show or use a special setting on the microwave.
Confusion about time, day, season or place. People with Alzheimer’s disease can lose track of the passage of time and may have trouble telling the season, day or month. They may forget where they are or how they got there. Not a Sign: Getting confused about the day of the week but figuring it out later.
Difficulty reading, judging distance, or determining color. Not a sign: Vision changes related to cataracts or drooping eyelids, macular degeneration or other ailments.
Difficulty with speaking or writing. Someone with Alzheimer’s may not remember the meaning of words they once knew. They may have trouble finding the right word for a common object. They may stop speaking in the middle of a conversation and repeat themselves or be unable to resume from where they left off. Not a sign: Sometimes having trouble finding the right word.
Misplacing things. Putting things in unusual places (car keys in the refrigerator, eyeglasses in the microwave). They may be unable to retrace their steps to find missing items. They may accuse others of stealing. Not a sign: Misplacing things occasionally and retracing your steps to find them.
Poor judgment. People with Alzheimer’s may experience changes in judgment. For example, they may fall victim to telephone scams, give out passwords, or otherwise trust people they don’t know. Not a Sign: Making a bad decision from time to time.
Isolation. People with Alzheimer’s may cease social interactions, hobbies, work projects or sports because they are having trouble remembering information related to these activities. They may avoid social activities because they are aware of the changes they have had. Not a Sign: Sometimes being tired of work, family and social obligations.
Changes in mood/personality. Those with Alzheimer’s may become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, anxious, even angry. They may get easily upset in situations that make them uncomfortable. Not a Sign: Becoming irritated when a routine is disrupted.
What causes dementia
Although it’s not known exactly why someone develops dementia, we do know symptoms arise when the nerve cells in the brain stop working properly, lose connection with other nerve cells, and die. As the disease progresses, more and more nerve cells die, making it difficult for the brain to function properly.
Although we all lose neurons as we age, the rate of loss in patients with dementia is far greater than normal. The seven stages of dementia range from normal/no functional decline to advanced, in which the person is totally dependent upon others for the most basic of activities – feeding, toileting and personal hygiene.
If you’re worried that someone you love may have dementia, it’s time to see a doctor. If you’re providing care to someone already diagnosed with dementia, you are not alone: It’s estimated that there are 16.1 million Americans providing unpaid care for those with dementia. And you should know, there is help.
The Varietas Memory Program at Traditions communities provides specialized care for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The program provides therapeutic and positive stimulation, expressive arts, exercise, and social interaction with residents, staff and family. The Varietas program is proven to maximize the quality of life for individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
For more information about the Varietas Memory Care Program or to arrange a personal tour, contact a Traditions community near you.