Dementia specialist offers insight, hope for Alzheimer’s patientsAlzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia that affects as many as 5.2 million Americans, first strikes a part of the brain, called the hippocampus, that is critical for learning and memory processes. It accounts for 50 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia that affects as many as 5.2 million Americans, first strikes a part of the brain, called the hippocampus, that is critical for learning and memory processes. It accounts for 50 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
Early onset Alzheimer’s disease occurs in people who are younger than 65, said Dr. Lindsey Hines, neuropsychologist with Sanford Health in Fargo.
Up to 5 percent of people with this disease have early onset Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. About 200,000 have early onset Alzheimer’s, which can strike people in their 40s.
Late onset, or “sporadic,” Alzheimer’s is diagnosed in people 65 and older, and is the type “that we are all at risk for as we age,” Hines said.
The early onset type is more likely to be “familial” Alzheimer’s disease, meaning that it has been passed down through the family.
“It is atypical for someone to get (early onset Alzheimer’s) without a family history,” Hines said. “In people who have familial early onset Alzheimer’s, there’s up to a 40 percent prevalence of the disease occurring in some families.”
In the few families that researchers have been able to study, they have found that the disease may occur earlier in each successive generation, she said. “If it was diagnosed in the grandmother at age 65, it may be diagnosed in the mother at 60, and the child at 50.”
The earlier the disease is diagnosed, the more rapidly it progresses, she said.
Early and late onset Alzheimer’s are “the same disease, but changes happen differently” in each type.
With early onset, “we still look for changes in language, memory and visual/spatial functioning,” she said. The latter refers to the ability to find one’s way to familiar places, such as by driving.
Alzheimer’s disease affects “the way the brain perceives and recognizes visual information over time,” she said.
The benefit of music
Music has been found to help Alzheimer’s patients because “it kind of jogs the memory for things that are overlearned or well-learned,” Hines said. It stimulates areas of the brain that stores experiences people have enjoyed in the past, allowing them to “retrieve good memories.”
“Music is one of those things where you don’t have to follow a conversation,” she said. “It works as a bridge, and focuses on a part of the brain that allows it to bypass areas of weakness.”
It “evokes or retrieves information from a part of the brain that is stronger.”
While others may enjoy a conversation, Alzheimer’s patients have trouble with it, she said. “They can become extra nervous; it’s stressful to get those words out.
“Music doesn’t require (use of) parts of the brain that experience stress in trying to do that activity.”
Stress can make the symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear worse, she said. It plays a role in whole body health, particularly as it affects “the brain and heart and how they work together.”
“I’m not talking about the kind of stress you feel in a traffic jam … but stress that stems from not having your basic needs being met, like food and housing.”
Reducing stress can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease for years, she said. “Anything that preserves brain health” is beneficial.
New memory-enhancing drugs work to boost the chemical that helps form memory in the brain, she said. “While the hippocampus shrinks (due to Alzheimer’s), the part of it that’s still there is strengthened” by drug therapy.
The drugs reduce the progression of the disease — as it affects difficulties with memory storage — and help maintain a level of function, she said.
Although a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, in a biological sense, can’t be confirmed until after death, when brain tissue can be examined, people should not delay or reject seeking an evaluation, she said.
With testing and in-depth interviews, “we can identify (the disease) while they’re alive,” Hines said.
“Just because there’s not a cure, we’re not hopeless,” she said. “We’re getting somewhere, we do have something (to offer) in the meantime.”
How to manage stress as a caregiver
• Know what resources are available.
• Get help. Seek the support of family, friends and caregivers going through similar experiences. Tell others exactly what they can do to help. The Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at (800) 272-3900, online message boards and local support groups are good sources of comfort and reassurance.
• Use relaxation techniques. Simple techniques can help relieve stress. (Determine which ones work best for you.) They include:
1.Visualization (mentally picturing a place or situation that is peaceful and calm)
2. Meditation (can be as simple as dedicating 15 minutes a day to letting go of all stressful thoughts)
3. Breathing exercises (slowing your breathing and focusing on taking deep breaths)
4. Progressive muscle relaxation (tightening and relaxing each muscle group, starting at one end of your body and working your way to the other end.) Learn more about relaxation techniques at mayoclinic.com.
• Sign up for weekly e-newsletter. Get ideas for balancing caring for your needs with the needs of a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
• Get moving. Physical activity, in any form, can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Even 10 minutes of exercise a day can help.
• Make time for yourself. As a caregiver, it’s hard to find time for yourself, but staying connected to friends, family and activities that you love is important for your well-being. Even if it’s only 30 minutes a week, carve out a pocket of time for yourself.
• Become an educated caregiver. As the disease progresses, new caregiving skills may be necessary. The Alzheimer’s Association offers programs to help you better understand and cope with the behaviors and personality changes that often accompany Alzheimer’s.
• Take care of yourself. Visit your doctor regularly. Watch your diet, exercise and get plenty of rest. Making sure you stay healthy will help you be a better caregiver.
If you experience signs of stress on a regular basis, consult your doctor. Ignoring symptoms can cause your physical and mental health to decline.
Source: Alzheimer’s Association
Walk to End Alzheimer’s
Where: Century Elementary School, 3351 17th Ave. S., Grand Forks, N.D.
Information: (701) 277-9757 or alz.org/mnnd