Each year, Alzheimer's awareness is heightened on September 21, World Alzheimer's Day. This dreaded disease impacts not only the person living with it, but also their loved ones. All who know the person experiencing memory loss are affected by watching the inevitable, progressive decline that accompanies it.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, every 67 seconds someone develops Alzheimer's. More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's and at least 200,000 of them have the younger-onset form. Although Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, it cannot be cured.
Based on these facts and figures, it's natural for individuals experiencing memory loss, or their loved ones who observe the changes in mood, memory, or personality, to be tempted to deny such changes.
Countless times I've heard from family members who clearly recognize that their loved one is experiencing memory loss yet insist that it isn't as "bad as it seems." Some even advocate for them to continue to live independently in their own home, hoping that remaining in a familiar environment will help keep memory loss at bay.
But when families make the decision to get their loved one the appropriate care, they quickly discover they can breathe a sigh of relief -- all because the person with memory loss is receiving the support they truly need. According to experts, such as the Mayo Clinic, early interventions may also help to slow the progression, which can give the person better opportunities to plan for the future.
Today's reality is that we cannot wish Alzheimer's away, and we may be taking risks with our loved ones' health and well-being if we do not provide them with the extra level of care and supervision to help maintain their safety.
Here are some commonly held misconceptions and ways of denying that a person might have Alzheimer's or a related dementia.
1. She's just getting older
Aging is known to be one of the greatest risk factors for developing Alzheimer's. One's chances of developing the disease doubles every five years, beginning at age 65, and by the age of 85, the risk is nearly 50 percent.
Despite these sobering statistics, it's important to note that memory loss is not an expected result for every person who is growing older. However, when some people notice that their older loved one is becoming increasingly forgetful, repeating the same story over and over again, or getting lost while driving home from the grocery store, they write these occurrences off as normal signs of aging. It is essential to encourage the person experiencing these changes to have a thorough check-up by their physician who can help to find the cause.
2. It must be a mid-life crisis
No one wants to consider that a person in his or her 40s, 50s or 60s could have a progressive form of memory loss, though it is a possibility. Frontotemporal dementia is less common than Alzheimer's and is believed to account for 10 to 15 percent of all dementia cases, with many of these occurring in people under the age of 65. Some of the earliest symptoms are marked changes in personality and language problems.
Some other signs are impulsive, out-of-character behaviors and poor judgment. This can often be seen with regard to financial matters, such as a pattern of running up credit cards with frivolous purchases. While it can be tempting to correlate some of these actions to a mid-life crisis, it is crucial to be aware it may be a deeper issue that requires further evaluation.
3. Stress and lack of sleep must be causing my forgetfulness
Most of us have experienced a poor night's sleep at one time or another and recall the "foggy brain" feeling that results the following day. Experts and studies tell us that getting quality sleep is important because it helps to solidify newly acquired information as well as remember newly learned information better.
On the medication front, a recent study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that the use of benzodiazepenes, often prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia, may be linked to Alzheimer's. Therefore, they recommend that benzodiazepines be used for a short duration of time, not to exceed three months.
People with Alzheimer's may experience changes in their sleep patterns because of the disease's impact on the brain, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The best way to find out if lack of sleep is associated with dementia is to get a thorough medical evaluation.
4. Everybody forgets sometimes
It's true that aging can contribute to an occasional memory lapse, sometimes referred to as a "senior moment." Many people have difficulty recalling someone's name, at times. A truer sign of dementia occurs when a person doesn't recognize a formerly well-known person, doesn't know the day or season, or has difficulty remembering new information. These types of changes warrant further medical investigation.
5. She's just really sad
Depression can cause changes in cognition, including decreased ability to pay attention and concentrate. These symptoms could make dementia and depression difficult to distinguish. According to the Mayo Clinic, one important difference between the two is in the effectiveness of treatment. Medications to treat depression may actually improve a person's quality of life, whereas Alzheimer's drugs can only slow the disease's progression. Knowing this, the physician may decide to provide therapy to address the depression first, followed by a reassessment to determine whether there has been an improvement in memory and concentration.
The Alzheimer's Association is a great resource and provides a full list of Alzheimer's warning signals that may indicate a memory loss issue. Above all, know that, while noticing and experiencing these changes can be overwhelming or even scary, you and your loved one are not alone in this journey.
Here's to hoping that World Alzheimer's Day will bring increased awareness and help more people get the needed early detection, personalized interventions and most importantly, the care and support that they so deserve!