a home health care professional treats a patient with alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s Disease 101

As we get older, we tend to have moments of forgetfulness. It’s not unusual to have these moments every once in a while, but when someone’s ability to remember, think, or make decisions begins to affect their everyday tasks, then it’s often a sign they’re developing dementia.

Dementia is a generalized term for these types of symptoms, and it’s not a normal part of the aging process. The most common cause of dementia, and one people think about most in relation to cognitive-related issues in older adults, is Alzheimer’s disease. This makes up about 60-80 percent of dementia cases.

For health care professionals who regularly work with older adults, you’ve likely found that Alzheimer’s disease is a common concern for your patients. As part of World Alzheimer’s Month this September, here are some of the basics of this disease.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease? 

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive cognitive disease. Its symptoms get worse as time goes by, starting with mild memory loss and ending with more severe symptoms, like a complete loss of a patient’s ability to respond or participate in conversations, and eventual death. 

Currently, it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. People with the disease normally live for four to eight years after diagnosis, but some can live as long as 20 years. The annual estimated cost for treating Alzheimer’s disease in the United States is estimated to jump from $379 billion to $500 billion by 2040

The disease currently has no cure and is the focus of ongoing research to learn more about it and how to diagnose it, prevent it, and treat it. We still aren’t entirely certain what causes the disease, although there’s a theory that a genetic mutation causes early-onset Alzheimer’s in people younger than 65 years old. 

What Are the Symptoms?

Alzheimer’s disease has many signs and symptoms that indicate something is wrong. In many of the long-term care facilities for older adults that health care professionals work in, we sometimes see the warning signs long before the patient or family notices them. 

Learn what the warning signs are, so you can help patients and family members begin the process for diagnosing, treating, and understanding as soon as possible. The Alzheimer’s Association lists the following ten early signs of Alzheimer’s to watch for: 

  1. Memory loss of recently-learned information that begins to disrupt a person’s daily life
  2. Challenges to make and follow plans or solve problems
  3. Difficulties completing familiar tasks
  4. Confusion around time or place, like dates, season, or where they are
  5. Trouble related to visual images or judging distance
  6. New issues with words when speaking or writing, like referring to a common object with the wrong name
  7. Misplacing items and being unable to retrace steps to try to find the items
  8. Changes in judgment and their ability to make decisions
  9. Withdrawing from social activities or obligations
  10. New changes in mood or personality 

How Is It Diagnosed?

There’s yet to be a single diagnostic test or tool for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. So doctors use a series of tests and questions to diagnose someone, often working alongside specialists to do so. This diagnostic process will include the following:

  • A patient’s medical history
  • A physical exam with diagnostic tests that are meant to assess the patient’s overall health 
  • A neurological exam to rule out brain disorders
  • A mental status test to evaluate a patient’s memory, problem-solving abilities, and other mental skills
  • Brain imaging through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) 

Many of these tests are to see if there are any underlying issues that might contribute to the signs or symptoms they’re experiencing.  Other illnesses and disorders have signs and symptoms that can seem like Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s important for physicians to make sure the patient doesn’t have any of those issues in order to get the most effective treatment.

Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed when all other issues have been ruled out. The only way to know with 100% certainty that is during an autopsy after death.

Why Is Early Detection Important?

The earlier that Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed in a patient, the more options the patient and their family will have for many issues related to the disease. While there isn’t a cure-all for the disease, there are medications that can help slow down the worsening of symptoms. Starting on treatment early can be a huge benefit to giving the medications a better chance of working.

As mentioned before, Alzheimer’s disease is the focus of many studies and research efforts. This means there are often ongoing clinical trials, and many of those look for patients who are still in the earliest stages of the disease. Early detection means that these patients have more options for clinical trials. 

Then there are just the benefits of having more control and time before the symptoms get worse. Patients can implement healthy habits that can help improve cognitive health and further slow down the disease. They also have time to make plans with their family and friends for the future.

How Is It Treated?

Treatment for Alzheimer’s disease focuses on managing symptoms and maintaining a person’s cognitive health and function for as long as possible. Currently, there’s no way to reverse or stop the disease completely. 

There are many approved medications that help regulate neurotransmitters in the body to reduce symptoms. Other medications aim to help treat behavioral symptoms from Alzheimer’s like anxiety or agitation. 

Ongoing research is continuously looking at more treatment options for Alzheimer’s patients. Some of these clinical trials are looking at alternative medications while others are researching the effects of lifestyle interventions. 

How Can Health Care Professionals Help?

Besides being aware of Alzheimer’s early signs and symptoms for early detection, health care professionals play an important part in treating this disease, not only for patients but for their family and other caregivers.

Many of the Alzheimer’s patients that health care professionals care for eventually make it to specialty memory care units in long-term care facilities, while others have delayed the symptoms long enough to live in non-specialty units or retirement centers. Others continue to live at home with their caregivers.

Whether you are a health care professional working in one of those facilities or in the home health field caring for these patients, continue providing the best possible care for them, keeping in mind our duty to treat them with respect, and help them maintain their dignity. 

You should also be aware of the caregivers and family members of your patients. For many, this may be their first experience with the disease, and it can be scary and frustrating for them to watch the disease progress. Full-time caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease can easily suffer burnout from the emotional and physical demands. 

Be aware of the multiple avenues of support that these caregivers can access. Familiarize yourself with understanding the disease and how to appropriately care for and interact with patients with dementia-related problems, so you can also be a valuable resource for educating caregivers and other health care staff.

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating process, but together with patients, caregivers, and other health care professionals, you can help improve a patient’s quality of life.