Alzheimer’s disease impacts more than 5.7 million Americans which impacts individuals both as they age and, in the case of several hundred thousand people, as an early-onset disorder diagnosed before age 65. To date, no cure has been found for Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, no proven methods have been found to prevent the occurrence of Alzheimer’s. Most medications on the market simply aim to slow progression and improve quality of life for patients for a little while longer.
Patients may experience confusion prior to the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, since forgetfulness and minor memory loss can be a normal part of the aging process for elderly Americans. Neuropsychologist Dr. Aviva Marlin, who works for St. Luke’s University Health Network, explains that the incidence of memory loss “will happen with more frequency as we age.” Nonetheless, she reminds of the importance to diagnose and begin treatment for Alzheimer’s at the soonest possible stage. Doing so allows medications that slow progression to work optimally in some Alzheimer’s patients.
Patients and their family members can distinguish between normal memory loss and the onset of Alzheimer’s by paying particular attention to certain signs. One area Marlin recommends watching for are functional changes. She looks for typically daily activities and the ability of patients to still perform them. Those can include areas like driving, shopping or other routine tasks like cooking, dressing or cleaning. When normal activities become too hard to accomplish, that’s often a sign of a serious problem.
Patients and family members alike are often startled to discover that the medications prescribed will not typically restore any of the functions that have already been lost or restore memory loss. Instead, medications currently on the market just seek to prevent the disease from worsening as fast as it would naturally. At times, occupational therapy or physical therapy may improve physical wellbeing, responses and abilities. Medical assistive devices available from home health companies can also aid in tackling daily tasks or enabling older adults to remain more safely at home. Marlin says that when patients have a hard time remembering to do daily tasks but can still physically handle them, “it may help to write reminders for them and place the reminders where they will see them it may help to write reminders for them and place the reminders where they will see them.”
Research is ongoing to try to find ways to prevent Alzheimer’s or further improve quality of life after diagnosis. For now, Marlin says the goal “is to maximize the person’s functioning…to remain an active participant in their own lives for as long as possible.”