Alzheimer’s and Dementia

For me, the most heart wrenching illnesses are Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases. To experience someone you know and love lose their cognition and memory must be devastating – to say the least. I am fortunate not to have experienced this first hand, yet. The chances that I will experience a loved one with a dementia illness or have a personal experience with it are high.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. What’s more, more than 15 million caregivers provided an estimated 18.1 billion hours of unpaid care, worth over $221.3 billion.

I don’t know about you, but I find these statistics to be shocking.

But there is hope. According to the Mayo Clinic, experts are cautiously hopeful about developing Alzheimer’s treatments that can stop or significantly delay its progression. By combining different medications, similar to how HIV/AIDS and some cancers are treated, they hope to slow down or put a stop to this disease.

Researchers are focusing on plaques, which are a characteristic sign of Alzheimer’s. Several drugs may prevent plaques from forming and help clear the brain of the protein responsible for their formation. Recent research shows that these types of medications work best during the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. More studies are underway.

Researchers are also hopeful that certain medications can prevent the interaction of two proteins that when combine trigger a destruction of connections between nerve cells and the brain. They have tested a medication, originally developed as a possible cancer treatment, in mice. The animals experienced a reversal of memory loss. A human trial has already begun.

A common brain abnormality found in people with Alzheimer’s is called tangles. This happens when a particular protein twists into microscopic fibers. Researchers are currently looking for ways to prevent theses tangles. Vaccines and inhibitors are currently being tested in trials.

Lastly, in the research realm, researchers are looking at the inflammation of brain cells that occur with Alzheimer’s disease. Treating the inflammatory process that occurs with Alzheimer’s may provide relief to some of the disease’s symptoms.

While we wait for these studies and experiments to pan out, there are some things you can do to help keep Alzheimer’s and dementia at bay. Here is a list of five things you can start doing today:

  1. Watch your food intake. There are foods you can eat that support brain function. Berries, nuts, olive oil, and dark, leafy greens are staples to a brain healthy diet. A diet called the MIND diet, a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, ranked third on the US News and World Report’s annual best diet list.
  2. Keep moving. The US National Institute on Aging found that exercise can play a key role in reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s and general cognitive decline.
  3. Less Stress. There is evidence that links high stress with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline. There are a number of ways to lower your stress, including yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises.
  4. Get a good night’s sleep. A 2014 study found a link between poor sleep habits and increased risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day.
  5. Develop and maintain a social network. According the US National Institute on Aging, staying cognitively active through social interactions is linked with a decrease in Alzheimer’s.

By taking these preventive steps you’ll not only potentially decrease your chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia illnesses, but you will feel better as you are doing it. Between your own positive habits and the miracle of medicine, Alzheimer’s and dementia may someday become diseases of the past.

One’s health, not age, dictates when driving is unsafe

drivingI take driving for granted. If I want to go somewhere I jump in my car and head out. It is an extension of my freedoms. That is why I completely understand how difficult it was for my grandmother when she stopped driving.

My grandmother drove a 1971 dark green Ford Falcon. She was 81 and it was 1982. She had been in four accidents in the same number of weeks. I vividly recall the loud, contentious conversations between my dad and his mother. She adamantly refused to give him her keys. My dad pulled the spark plugs, and my grandmother, who knew my dad tampered with the car, begrudgingly accepted that her car no longer worked.

My grandmother had Parkinson’s disease and it began to interfere with her ability to drive.

“It’s your health and abilities, not your age, that matters when it comes to driving,” says Linnea Hagberg, director of Community Programs and Planning at SeniorCare.

Anyone, at any age, could have a health issue that interferes with driving. Aging, however, brings with it physical changes and changes to our abilities. Age-related changes vary greatly from one person to the next, which is why some people can continue driving longer than others.

Vision changes

Our eyesight changes as we age. The amount of light needed increases, which can make driving at night difficult. Eyes become more sensitive to headlights and street lights, making it difficult to see things outside your direct line of vision. There are also eye diseases that can cause significant concerns.

Hearing changes

Loss of hearing is one of the most common conditions affecting adults. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders states that one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has a hearing loss and nearly half of people over the age of 75 have difficult hearing. This makes it difficult to hear horns, sirens and noises from your car, which can be dangerous.

Changes in attention and reaction time

Reacting quickly is a key skill when driving. A person must be able to make quick decisions to stay safe. As we age our reaction time can slow down. Sometimes all the information we need to process when driving, including signal lights, road signs, other drivers and pedestrians, becomes overwhelming.

Medications

It is not unusual for older adults to take more medications than when they were young, and often older people take multiple medications. Both prescription and over-the-counter medications can impair your ability to drive. Some medications can cause dizziness or nausea.

Health conditions

Some health conditions can affect your ability to drive. Diabetes can make a person’s blood level too high or low, causing one to feel sleepy, dizzy or confused. Macular degeneration can make it difficult to see road signs. Arthritis can limit movement and make it difficult to make quick responses. Parkinson’s disease can cause a person’s legs and arms to shake and affect balance and movement.

As Hagberg said, it is not age that will dictate when driving becomes unsafe, it is one’s health. Making the decision to not drive is a difficult one. When helping an older loved one make that decision, it is best to approach it gently and with great compassion. Imagine your own independence being limited. Make safety and actual driving capabilities the key topic. It is physical and brain health that matter, not age.

Traveling with someone who has Alzheimer’s

travelGloucester Times Senior Lookout

Boredom, loneliness and isolation can seep into the lives of people living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Consciously combating these experiences takes time, effort and planning, but the benefits can be extraordinary. Going out to dinner, shopping, or even traveling may seem overwhelming. But people with Alzheimer’s, especially in the early stages, may still enjoy going places they’ve enjoyed in the past. And with a little planning, it does not have to be too taxing for the caregiver.

If you are staying in town and going on a day trip, you’ll want to plan outings for the time of day that is best for the person with Alzheimer’s. Other things you may want to consider when planning day trips:

  • How long will the event you’re planning take? You’ll want to keep notes as to when your loved one becomes too tired. Keep this in mind when planning future events. You want to plan outings that will conclude before your loved one becomes overtired.
  • Make a business-size card to tell others about the person’s disease. It might say, “My mom has Alzheimer’s disease. She may say or do unexpected things. Thank you for your understanding.” Sharing this information with store clerks, waitstaff, can make going out more comfortable for everyone.
  • Choose restaurants based on layout, menu, noise level, waiting times, and the staff.
  • Be thoughtful of where you will be shopping. If you will be in a mall, be aware of exits.
  • Never leave your loved one alone. Go with the person to the restroom. Go into the stall if help is needed.
  • Plan for items you may need, such as utensils for the restaurant, a towel, and/or bathroom items.

Vacations and travel can also be a wonderful experience for the person with Alzheimer’s and the caregiver. But again, planning is the key. Here are some tips if you plan longer trips and vacations:

  • Bring an identification tag that your loved one can wear.
  • Keep things as familiar as possible. For example, bring the person’s favorite pajamas or pillow.
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  • If the person has never traveled on an airplane before, this is not the best time to introduce something new.
  • Get plenty of rest before the trip.
  • Research what medical services are offered at your destination, in case you need them. Bring a brief medical history with you, including a current medication list, doctors’ telephone numbers and a list of any allergies.
  • Plan your itinerary well in advance. If staying with friends or family, make them aware of what Alzheimer’s is and what the symptoms can look like.
  • Limit the length of plane or car rides. Bring along toys, photos, hobbies or other distractions in case the person with Alzheimer’s becomes agitated.
  • If you are traveling by air, avoid layovers, and try to fly on direct flights only. Carry all boarding passes, passports and other important papers yourself, rather than giving them to the person with Alzheimer’s. Pack all medications in a carry-on bag.
  • Have a backup plan. That way you can react to mishaps without become overly anxious yourself. Recognize when the patient is becoming upset or agitated, and stop any activities when necessary in order to get some rest.

Planning is the key to having an outing or vacation that is enjoyable and safe. It is realistic to assume that the confusion of dementia will increase on a trip, leading to discomfort, fear or agitation. Being prepared can help mediate any mishaps and make for a safe and enjoyable trip. For more information about traveling with someone who has Alzheimer’s, visit Alzheimer’s Association online at www.alz.org.