In 1983, when President Reagan declared November National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, there were less than two million Americans suffering from this debilitating illness. In a cruel twist of fate, President Reagan himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a decade later. By the time of his passing in 2004, the number of Americans experiencing the ravages of Alzheimer’s had doubled — and today over five million people are living with Alzheimer’s Disease.
These staggering numbers are a clear indication that Alzheimer’s Disease is touching all of our lives. Most of us have an acquaintance, a dear friend or a beloved family member in the early to late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. We may have felt the pain of losing a loved one in spirit long before their bodies fail them. And, if truth be told, whenever a dear one forgets a name or asks what day it is, we’ve probably wondered: “Is this a sign of Alzheimer’s?”
What’s normal, what’s not
Although about five percent of all Alzheimer’s patients are in their 40s and 50s, the strongest risk factor for developing this tragic illness is simply being older than age 65. That’s why it’s so very important to understand the difference between normal aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Following are some guidelines recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association:
- Memory – If your loved one sometimes has trouble remembering a name or keeping an appointment, don’t panic. But if memory problems are frequent and serious enough to interfere with daily life, it may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s Disease. Examples of these include asking for the same information over and over; depending on family members to remember important things that in the past, they handled on their own; or forgetting things they’ve learned recently.
- Tasks – Your elder may need help setting up a DVD player or make a mistake while balancing a checkbook. Let’s face it, we all have these issues from time to time! But if the dear one is consistently struggling with monthly routines like bill-paying or familiar tasks like playing a favorite card game, this could be another early symptom of Alzheimer’s.
- Confusion – Most of us have forgotten what day it is on occasion. But an elderly person who doesn’t recognize where they are or remember how they got there is showing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. Other examples of this confusion include frequently losing things and not being able to locate them by retracing their steps, or accusing others of stealing items when they can’t be found.
- Losing words – We’ve all had the experience of searching for the right word. But an Alzheimer’s sufferer will often stop in mid-sentence and be unable to continue. They may “invent” words to replace ones they’ve suddenly forgotten (calling a belt a “pants holder,” for example).
Get treatment, get help
If your loved one is showing any signs of Alzheimer’s Disease it’s important for him or her to see a physician as soon as possible. While current medical treatment cannot prevent or stop the progress of Alzheimer’s, there are drugs that can delay serious impairment for as much as a year.
Experiencing the scourge of Alzheimer’s Disease is a difficult path with a tragic end. But you and your loved one don’t have to walk this path alone. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association Caregiver Center for a wealth of valuable resources — and please remember that we’re always here to help.