Understanding Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is a slowly progressive deterioration of all parts or the brain that produces a loss of mental function in many areas. The cause is unknown, although much progress has been made in the past 10 years. Brain cells in all areas of the brain become sick, and die. The brain shrinks in overall size and its microscopic structure changes. The loss of functioning brain cells leads to a reduction in the chemicals that send information from one cell to the next. These chemicals are called “neurotransmitters.”

People with Alzheimer's disease commonly have the following problems in the early stage of the disease:

Memory Loss:

Individuals have trouble recalling recent events even though they retain memories of events of long ago. They commonly repeat questions and lose track of an ongoing conversation or of something they are in the midst of doing.

Disorientation:

They lose their sense of direction or of the passing of time. They may mix-up day and night.

Apraxia:

They have trouble with movement and may no longer remember how to use familiar tools, like a screwdriver or can opener. They may have trouble with buttons or ties.

Anomia:

They have frequent trouble finding the right word or the name of a familiar person. The experience is frustrating because the word or the name is “right at the tip of the tongue.”

Executive Function:

They may have trouble organizing tasks or problem solving. They could experience trouble with decision making and their judgment may be impaired. This could lead to a risk of exploitation.

Personality Change:

They may seem like a different person. Changes could be for the worse (i.e. more anger or agitation) but sometimes are for the better (more calm and compliant), from the point of view of those around them.

Trouble with Routines:

They may lose the ability to do things they’ve long been able to do: keep track of bills, prepare a simple meal, or use a checkbook.

Problems with Grooming:

Their ability to bathe regularly, brush teeth, and maintain good personal hygiene may deteriorate. They may think that they have completed the task when they have not, and may be resistant to assistance.

Loss of Insight:

They may not see or understand the changes that are occurring and may believe that everything is fine. Many families believe that this is denial – but it is not - the individual truly does not appreciate that they are having trouble and trying to convince them is a loosing battle.

Learning to understand the problems that develop because of changes like these is a critical part of learning to cope with Alzheimer's disease. Such learning can allow the person with the disease to live longer at home and improve the quality of life for everyone in the household.

If you have a loved one who is affected by Alzheimer's disease, it pays to become an “expert” on the ways you can help. Information on the variety of problems that may occur and strategies for dealing with them can be found through your doctor, local organizations such as the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, and local Memory Disorder Clinic. Information is also available in publications and on the Internet (see links).

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