Have I got Alzheimer’s Disease?

World Alzheimer’s Day, commemorated annually on 21 September, shines the spotlight on this frightening disease. This year’s theme aims to help people understand the condition, how it affects us, the warning signs, and – most importantly – how to support those who live with it.

Often mistakenly referred to as, ‘old timer’s disease’, Alzheimer’s is associated with forgetfulness or memory loss in older people. But what exactly is Alzheimer’s? And how do you know if you, or a loved one, has it?

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

In medical terms, Alzheimer’s is a progressive, degenerative disorder that causes the brain to atrophy (shrink) and gradually destroys a person’s memory and thinking skills. Eventually, even simple, familiar tasks may be beyond the capability of a person living with the disorder.

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, which refers to the incongruous behaviour and thinking displayed by those affected.

Since scientists don’t yet know what triggers Alzheimer’s, there’s no way of preventing it. No cure. And nothing you can do to slow down the progression of the disease. However there are treatments to relieve unpleasant symptoms such as depression or insomnia.

After the age of 65, your risk of developing the disease doubles every five years. But people as young as 40 years old can get early-onset Alzheimer’s.

What are the symptoms?

Memory loss is usually the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, short-term memory loss. You may be able to remember childhood events in great detail, but you can’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning, or a conversation you had with someone ten minutes earlier.

If warning bells have already started ringing in your head, don’t panic. As we get older, occasional memory lapses are perfectly normal. Like not being able to remember where we left our car keys or glasses. Or forgetting the names of people we know.

This is not the same as the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease. If you have Alzheimer’s, you may get lost in familiar places. E.g. You can’t remember how to get to the shops, or home again afterwards. Perhaps you can no longer manage to plan and cook a meal, or even dress yourself. The names of everyday objects escape you. You may not be able to recognise family members. Or you confuse them with other people. Dealing with numbers is especially difficult. As is finding the right words to express your thoughts.

You may be aware that you are having difficulty remembering things, concentrating, and accomplishing everyday tasks. But often, people with Alzheimer’s are blissfully ignorant. It’s a family member or friend who notices the decline.

Changes in personality

Alzheimer’s eventually affects the part of the brain that governs your personality and mood. You could experience:

  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Declining interest in personal hygiene (e.g. refusing to shower or wash yourself)
  • Irritability and aggressiveness
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Loss of inhibitions (e.g. refusing to wear clothes)
  • Delusions (e.g. believing someone is stealing from you or trying to poison you)

When to seek help

If you are concerned that you, or a loved one, may have Alzheimer’s disease, make an appointment with your doctor for a thorough assessment and diagnosis. There are other treatable conditions that cause similar symptoms. So you could save yourself a lot of worry by finding out that your memory loss has nothing to do with Alzheimer’s.

Forgetfulness, confusion and memory loss can also be caused by:

  • Certain drugs or medication, especially if they are taken in combination.
  • Minor head injury, e.g. if you’ve recently fallen and bumped your head.
  • Severe stress, anxiety or depression.
  • Excessive use of alcohol, especially if combined with medication.
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency.
  • Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland).
  • Brain diseases, e.g. tumours or brain infections.
  • Untreated sleep apnea.

What to do if you, or a loved one, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease

You may feel that, since there is no cure, there is little point in confirming that you have Alzheimer’s. Many patients deliberately hide memory problems, rather than coming to terms with the possible onset of dementia.

However, a definite diagnosis is valuable in enabling you to:

  • Educate yourself and loved ones about the disease.
  • Receive treatment for distressing symptoms, e.g. insomnia and anxiety.
  • Get your financial and other matters in order while there is still time.
  • Give a trusted family member or friend power of attorney to manage your affairs.
  • Identify and budget for frail care facilities or home care services that you may need.

Even when you are no longer able to deal with tasks that require logic, problem solving, or sequential steps (e.g. following a recipe), you may still enjoy other activities such as reading, dancing, listening to the radio, reminiscing, singing, listening to music, painting or colouring in. These activities are controlled by a different part of the brain, which is only affected in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s.

If you are caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease.

In the early stages, you may find your loved one’s behaviour irritating. Being asked the same question over and over can really wear you down. However, it helps to remember that your loved one isn’t being deliberately obtuse. He or she is ill, and needs to be treated with the same patience and kindness you would give them if they had an illness like cancer.

So what if you’ve heard the story about how your dad once caught an 8kg shad a hundred times? Or your mom won ‘Secretary of the Year’ back in the day? Retelling these stories takes them back to happy times, where they can relive their youth and achievements. Let them have their moment of happiness.

Spend time with them paging through old photo albums or newspaper clippings they’ve kept. Add more recent photos of new family members, e.g. grandchildren – especially if your loved one has difficulty remembering their names or who they are.

Don’t correct or argue unnecessarily

Avoid contradicting your loved one if he or she makes a remark that isn’t true. Rather let it slide. Because, what’s more important? Their contentment and peace of mind? Or insisting that they get their facts straight?

Safety is crucial. If your loved one has a tendency to wander, you may need to consider a care facility where entry and exit are strictly controlled. We’ve all seen the posts on social media about missing elders, who’ve wandered away from home and are unable to find their way back. Don’t let this happen to your family!

Safety measures extend to making sure your loved one is eating properly, and taking in sufficient liquid to prevent dehydration. Because, along with everything else, they may forget to eat and drink.

In all of this, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Contact a support group for emotional help, or engage the services of a carer,  even if it’s only on a part time basis, to enable you to enjoy precious ‘me’ time.