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Is it Really Alzheimer's?

Today's Medicine

All of us slow down as we age, including our thinking. But Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal development with aging.

There are many types of dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common. The only way to know if someone has dementia, or specifically Alzheimer’s, is to have him or her tested. Other medical issues may mimic the symptoms of dementia, and it is important to determine whether a reversible process is part of the picture.

The devastation of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death among Americans, but some estimates actually rank it as third, right behind heart disease and cancer. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates one in every nine older Americans has the disease, affecting approximately 5.7 million people over the age of 65. It slowly robs those it strikes of their memory, thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. 

Many call it “the long goodbye.”

Memory issues not a normal part of aging

Many people mistake the onset symptoms of Alzheimer’s as just a normal part of aging because friends say they’re going through the same thing, but a primary care physician can do some screening tests to see what’s going on. They can compare a person’s individual evaluation to other patients the same age to see if they are on par with their peers.

The Methodist Hospital Geriatric Evaluation and Management (GEM) Clinic has performed geriatric evaluations for more than 20 years. A team including a social worker and a physician who specializes in senior care, helps families set a course for treatment and monitoring to protect the well-being of the patient.

"People need to come in as soon as they think that something might be wrong. It’s very important to catch the signs of Alzheimer’s early because the medicines we utilize only help stabilize symptoms. They don’t change or reverse the disease process."

Dr. Rebecca Reilly
Methodist GEM Clinic Medical Director

Signs of Alzheimer’s

So what are the signs family members should be watching for in their loved ones? A person should have an evaluation when:

  • He/she is confused or doesn’t understand tasks that were once easy
  • He/she shows uncharacteristic lapses in judgment
  • He/she has a major change in personality, or becomes withdrawn
  • He/she has trouble remembering things he/she has been told
  • He/she is disoriented to time or place

Bottom line: Your loved one should have an evaluation if he is not able to do things that used to be easy for him. If she has always been somebody who could fix anything or loved to plant her garden and now can’t quite figure it out how to do it, that is something you should have evaluated.

Improving brain health

While changes to your lifestyle won’t stop Alzheimer’s, it can improve overall brain health. If you are over 65, being active for just 15 minutes or more a day improves the circulation to your brain and improves brain function.

What other lifestyle changes can help your memory and perhaps delay the onset of symptoms?

  • Keep your mind active. Crossword puzzles, word searches and card games are great ways to keep your brain sharp.
  • Stay social. Joining friends for social gatherings, taking part in an exercise class, or volunteering can keep your mind and body busy. Socializing with others helps build connections between brain cells, helping to keep them healthy!
  • Take time to relax. Meditation and yoga can help free your mind from memory-zapping stress.
  • Get adequate sleep. Sleep is an important part of mental health, allowing your brain to “reset” night after night. Not getting enough can take a toll on your overall health.
  • Eat a proper diet. Good nutrition is key for both mind and body. Eat fruits, vegetables and fish.
  • Take medications consistently and as prescribed. If you need to use a pill box or set reminders, do so. Talk to your doctor about proper medication.
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise. The second most common cause of memory loss behind Alzheimer’s disease is vascular dementia. Exercise gets the blood flowing to your brain, keeping it oxygenated and healthy.
  • Bring vascular health conditions under control. If you have conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or if you smoke, talk to your doctor about getting in control. Doing so will have an added benefit to your heart, lungs and kidneys.

Having the conversation

With any Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis, it’s important to begin open and frank conversations with your doctor and family to make sure your health care wishes are known. While the goal of every physician is to keep patients at home and independent as long as possible, there may come a time when a higher level of care is needed.

To learn more about Alzheimer’s care and schedule a geriatric evaluation for your loved one, call the Methodist Hospital GEM Clinic at 402-354-3152.
 

In The News:

Rebecca Reilly

About the Author:

Rebecca Reilly, MD, is medical director of the Methodist Hospital Geriatric Evaluation and Management Clinic

See More Articles by Rebecca Reilly