What did Robin Williams, Rita Hayworth, Terry Pratchett and Rosa Parks all have in common? Each lived with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) – a well-documented degenerative neurological condition – for the final years of their life. If you weren’t aware, September is World Alzheimer’s Month, so I want to turn our attention to this tragically-common disease and shed a little light on a topic that still faces a great deal of stigma and misunderstanding in modern society.
Can it be prevented?
Before delving into the disease in its manifested form, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the subject of prevention. Alzheimer’s has, so far, been notoriously difficult for researchers to fully-understand. At present, the causes have been traced to various lifestyle-influenced risk factors such as blood pressure and physical fitness which, combined with age (over sixty-fives are most susceptible) can increase the likelihood of the condition arising. Unfortunately, due to the inconclusive nature of much research conducted on the topic, whether or not the disease is truly-preventable is up in the air. As it stands, science hasn’t yet discovered a reliable method for detecting those most at-risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
There are, however, a number of study-proven lifestyle adjustments you can make that will reduce your chances of developing the condition (and other forms of dementia too), and fortunately, they’re all things that will also help you lead a healthier and happier life in general! For example, keeping active is one major change that researchers advise making if you haven’t already. Science has long linked physical health with cognitive health, and a number of studies have shown that keeping fit can lower the risk of cognitive degeneration of the type manifested as dementia. A large reason for this is the fact that the risk factors we commonly-associate with heart disease and stroke – namely obesity, diabetes and higher blood pressure levels – are all linked to neurological decline. So not only will exercise help, but so will things such as quitting smoking, reducing salt, sugar and fat intake and getting enough sleep (which will also help to reduce your risk of developing memory impairments).
Additionally, taking good care of your mental health is the other important tool against dementia. Whilst taking care of yourself physically will contribute to better mental health anyway, keeping your brain active will not only make you feel better, but it will reduce the risk of mental deterioration later in life. Reading regularly, for example, can have a notable impact on cognitive wellbeing, but so can any task that realistically challenges you mentally (brownie points too if you’re physically-challenged at the same time). This can be anything from strategy board games to building a cupboard – so long as you’re engaging your brain, you’ll be doing it a favour. If you can also maintain an active social life alongside this, you’ll be stimulating all of the right spots in your cranium to hopefully maintain a healthy neurological profile for years to come.
And, of course, certain things ought to be obvious; protect your brain from injury wherever possible. Wear helmets when cycling or playing any contact sports, don’t forget your seatbelt and – if you do hurt your head, make certain that the damage isn’t more serious than you thought. Brain injuries can take years to manifest themselves fully and are undeniable risk factors for conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
Whilst the disease is a serious and still little-understood condition, its unpredictability also means that there’s little point in worrying about it too much. All of the advice listed above will, if followed, likely make you feel healthier and happier regardless of whether it prevents you from developing dementia in any of its forms. Take it on board, and keep reading to learn a little more about how you can approach the condition if you or somebody you know is unfortunate enough to develop it.
Alzheimer’s Society’s focus for World Alzheimer’s Month this year is on tackling the considerable stigma that the disease (and the dementia it causes) frequently attracts. It’s a difficult topic to wrap one’s head around, certainly – unless one suffers symptoms of dementia or watches a loved one endure the same. This is what I’d like to zoom in upon for this section of the article – as was expressed by co-founder Jack in our recent post for World Suicide Prevention Day, one of the most effective steps in approaching difficult subjects like this in a sensitive and effective manner is to destigmatise them. An open and compassionate understanding of Alzheimer’s and the wider umbrella of dementia is crucial to helping sufferers and those close to them feel accepted and supported, even if a true ‘cure’ has not yet been found. With that in mind, I’d like to clarify a few commonly-held misconceptions on the matter.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are not synonymous
As I briefly alluded to, ‘dementia’ is a blanket term for a vast array of symptoms of which Alzheimer’s disease only causes a few. The two terms refer to different things, and shouldn’t be conflated. Dementia, essentially, affects the areas of your brain that handle language, memory and decision-making, and Alzheimer’s disease is its most common manifestation. It’s very important to avoid assuming that everyone with symptoms of dementia is an Alzheimer’s sufferer – this can place a harmful set of assumptions upon the afflicted person which may well be false. When somebody is already suffering from a life-changing ailment, misrepresenting their symptoms to them or to others can be damaging. Let’s put it in context – if you were dealing purely with symptoms of depression that dulled your mood and motivation, but you weren’t suffering symptoms of anxiety, you’d likely be bothered if everyone kept tiptoeing around you because they believed you might have an anxiety-induced panic attack. Such misguided assumptions don’t help, only hinder.
Alzheimer’s cannot be reversed
Whilst I touched upon the difficulty of prevention, it is also important to note that the degenerative symptoms of Alzheimer’s are irreversible. The damage done to the brain cannot be undone – this is vital to be aware of for those who find themselves, in one way or another, dealing with the disease. There are strategies that can be enacted to help with day-to-day management of the condition, but as medical science currently stands no available cure currently exists. A few select drugs such as Donepezil, Galantamine and Memantine can, after the detection of symptoms, delay their progression for between 6-12 months in around half of all cases. Beyond this, however, treatment options are sparse.
Alzheimer’s is fatal
Imagine losing your sense of identity – being unable to remember who you or the people around you are, where you are, the life you’ve experienced and how to communicate properly with others. These are all symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and if they weren’t terrible enough they also come accompanied by a death sentence. The life-expectancy of those diagnosed with the disease is between three and ten years, and it’s extremely rare that anybody lives for more than fourteen. Sadly, whilst the condition does result in death, by the time that point is reached the sufferer may well be near-unrecognisable to both those they know and themselves.
Alzheimer’s does not only affect old people
Yes, over-sixty-fives are the most frequently-afflicted by the disease, but early-onset Alzheimer’s can develop in people even as young as their thirties. Approximately 200,000 people in the US currently live with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Notably, around 60-70% of early-onset cases are traced back to inherited genetic predispositions to the disease; a factor that only accounts for around 1% of cases as a whole. I’ll admit that until recently I’d always assumed Alzheimer’s was an inherited condition for practically everyone, but as I’ve now learned this is a major misrepresentation. Everyone is at risk, whether or not there is a familial history at play, and as a result we should all become aware of the facts surrounding the disease and approach it – and dementia as a whole – with sensitivity and an open mind.
The concept of sensitivity is especially important. There’s only so much we can do to help those who find themselves diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As noted, it’s a terminal illness that can be incredibly difficult to navigate, whether it’s afflicting you or somebody you’re close to. The least that we can do is to make sure we’re treating those affected parties with the respect and compassion that we’d wish for in their position.
Be mindful of how you talk about such conditions, particularly if you’ve been lucky enough to avoid being personally-affected by them (check out this blog post from the Alzheimer’s Society for advice on how to treat towards those who live with the disease compassionately). Due to it’s currently-incurable nature and the shroud of mystery that still surrounds it’s development, there is only so much we can do to help those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Alongside being kind, the US National Institute of Aging stresses the importance of simplicity and routine; the confusion that the disease can cause is often eased by caregivers reassuring the sufferer that they’re safe, and telling them exactly what they can expect on any given day.
Alzheimer’s patients often act out through aggressive behaviour or inappropriate conduct. Naturally, this can be upsetting even to those who know such actions are symptoms of a disease. Always ensure you’re remaining calm around sufferers, even if you don’t want to. Leave the room for a breather, for example, so you can avoid a (perfectly natural) loss of composure that could further agitate or disorientate the individual.
Beyond this, I regret to say, there’s isn’t much more widely-useful advice to offer. I hope this article has made you think a little more about Alzheimer’s and dementia, and I’d urge you spend an hour or so reading up on the condition a little more. It’s a disease that could affect any of us in later life, so we owe it to each other to try and be aware of its symptoms, risk factors and how to properly treat those unfortunate enough to develop it.
If you’re seeking support with any relevant issues then Alzheimer’s Society’s helpline can offer information and advice. Get in touch with them by calling 0300 222 1122; open from 9am – 8pm Monday to Wednesday, 9am – 5pm Thursday and Friday and 10am – 4pm Saturday and Sunday.