November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, and currently, 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the fifth-leading cause of death for people ages 65 and older.
From signs and symptoms to resources for your family, here’s what you need to know.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.
“Alzheimer’s disease develops due to abnormal proteins that clump together in the brain,” said Dr. Cory Lamar with Novant Health Summit Sleep & Neurology in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “These abnormal proteins are toxic to the brain and destroy connections between brain cells.”
The destruction of brain and nerve cells can cause memory failure, personality changes and problems carrying out daily activities.
“Memory loss is the most common symptom people report,” Lamar said. “A lot of family members, or the patient themselves, will begin to notice the patient repeating themselves more often.”
Lamar noted that some memory loss comes with normal aging, but it’s important to keep an eye out for slow, gradual changes. These changes can include anything that is different about a person’s normal behavior or level of functioning.
In addition to memory loss, other neurological symptoms physicians look for include:
- Executive abilities or dysfunction . “This is trouble with organization or planning,” Lamar said. “Patients become less organized or less motivated and often have trouble multitasking.”
- Visual/spatial impairment . “This is where we see patients having trouble driving and recognizing familiar faces or objects,” Lamar said. “Individuals start to get lost driving in familiar places and may be involved in more accidents.”
- Fragmented sleep. “It’s easy for the sleep and wake cycles of someone with Alzheimer’s disease to become altered,” Lamar said. “Individuals may feel drowsy during the day and may have difficulty staying asleep at night.”
Lamar said the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is age. Studies show that one in nine people age 65 and older has the disease, while one in three people age 85 or older has the disease.
Other major risk factors include a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, history of stroke or heart disease, or a history of a moderate to severe traumatic brain injury.
Although Alzheimer’s disease is not reversible, Lamar said there have been improvements in treating the disease – there are now medications that help slow down the process and improve quality of life.
Exercise has also been shown to slow down the process.
“While I encourage exercise with all of my patients, I especially encourage it in those who are at risk for cardiovascular disease,” Lamar said. “When people are socially engaged, or do some sort of exercise, the progression of the disease can be slowed.”
“Alzheimer’s disease affects the entire family,” Lamar said. “We know it places a tremendous burden on one’s family members. Because of that, there are several things we try to do outside of traditional medication.”
Lamar makes a point to speak with family members about things they can do to help their loved one during this time. For example, he suggests ensuring your family member with Alzheimer’s disease has a normal sleep cycle.
“It’s important to make sure it’s bright during the daytime so they don’t get confused as it’s easy for their sleep cycles to become altered,” Lamar said.
Lamar said another thing to do is try to talk to them in a calm, soothing voice, especially if they are easily irritable or agitated.
The most important thing he stressed is to link up with support groups and the Alzheimer’s Association. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a community resource finder where you can find a comprehensive listing of resources, community programs and services. There is also a 24/7 helpline at 1-800-272-3900.
Novant Health has nationally recognized neurologists who are trained in diagnosing and caring for neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. The health care system also offers support services for relieving related cognitive and behavioral symptoms. Test your knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease with an online quiz .