How to notice signs of Alzheimer’s disease, plus, advice for caregivers

November is Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month

November is Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month.

As millions of Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, it’s important to understand what might be contributing when it comes to individuals developing this illness.

One in nine people ages 65 and older (11.3%) has Alzheimer’s, according to Dr. Katherine Whiteley, a medical director for University Health.

Whiteley provided some insight on how to treat Alzheimer’s and how caregivers can provide support for patients.

1. What are the signs of Alzheimer’s?

“Dementia is a very slow decline,” said Whiteley. “It’s not something that you see from month to month, it’s a progression where the family will say, well, I told you to go do this, why didn’t you go do that? Or you forgot to add the salt to the spaghetti? What happened? And the family will notice before the patient will ever notice. And it’s usually the family member that will bring somebody in. Maybe they made a mistake balancing their checkbook, maybe the math is wrong. They have trouble with short-term memory loss, but as well as what we call cognitive function. It’s the ability to perform complex tasks.”

Takeaway: Signs can include memory impairment from recent events, compromised multitasking, inability to complete tasks, lack of insight into deficits, sleep disturbances, difficulty with word-finding, difficulty with motor tasks—dressing and using utensils to eat.

2. What can I do if I have a parent, relative or friend who is showing these signs?

“The best thing that a family member or caregiver can do is bring the person in to be evaluated,” Whiteley said. “There are a lot of different types of dementia, and actually, Alzheimer’s is only 60-80% of dementia. There are other kinds of dementia, especially from a history of stroke. High blood pressure can cause, which is uncontrolled, can cause confusion and dementia. Diabetes uncontrolled can cause confusion. There are conditions called delirium. We have to make sure there’s nothing acute going on. It is very important for the family member to bring that person in so that we can do an evaluation.”

Takeaway: Caregivers need to understand taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient requires a lot of patience. Patients with dementia need daily routine, supervision, hygiene assistance and good sleep hygiene.

3. What happens when Alzheimer’s patients are brought in for an exam?

“We’ll do a physical exam we evaluate for depression,” Whiteley explained. “COVID has caught it cause a lot of depression in our elders. They spent a lot of time by themselves living alone. We look for signs of depression and do what’s called a mini-mental status exam to check cognitive function. But we also do blood work.”

Takeaway: Doctors will complete a full body examination with blood work and a cat scan to check cognitive function and any vitamin deficiencies.

4. Explain why it’s important for caregivers to be aware and vigilant for Alzheimer’s patients.

“Yes, the family is very important,” said Whiteley. “Patients forget that they forgot anything, so they’re not even aware that they don’t know what they used to know. The burden is on the family. The family has to be patient. They have to learn to take breaks. They need to understand that they [patients] may say the same thing 10 times. It doesn’t matter. They forget that they forgot anything, and it’s like you’re telling them for the first time.”

Takeaway: As a caregiver, it’s important to take breaks if you are overwhelmed.

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