Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions. At first, someone with Alzheimer’s disease may notice mild confusion and difficulty remembering. Eventually, people with the disease may even forget important people in their lives and undergo dramatic personality changes.
At first, increasing forgetfulness or mild confusion may be the only symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease that you notice. But over time, the disease robs you of more of your memory, especially recent memories. The rate at which symptoms worsen varies from person to person.
If you have Alzheimer’s, you may be the first to notice that you’re having unusual difficulty remembering things and organizing your thoughts. Or you may not recognize that anything is wrong, even when changes are noticeable to your family members, close friends or co-workers.
Everyone has occasional memory lapses. It’s normal to lose track of where you put your keys or forget the name of an acquaintance. But the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease persists and worsens, affecting your ability to function at work and at home.
People with Alzheimer’s may:
Alzheimer’s disease causes difficulty concentrating and thinking, especially about abstract concepts like numbers. Multitasking is especially difficult, and it may be challenging to manage finances, balance checkbooks and pay bills on time. These difficulties may progress to inability to recognize and deal with numbers.
Responding effectively to everyday problems, such as food burning on the stove or unexpected driving situations, becomes increasingly challenging.
Once-routine activities that require sequential steps, such as planning and cooking a meal or playing a favorite game, become a struggle as the disease progresses. Eventually, people with advanced Alzheimer’s may forget how to perform basic tasks such as dressing and bathing.
Brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease can affect the way you act and how you feel. People with Alzheimer’s may experience:
Many important skills are not lost until very late in the disease. These include the ability to read, dance and sing, enjoy old music, engage in crafts and hobbies, tell stories and reminisce. This is because information, skills and habits learned early in life are among the last abilities to be lost as the disease progresses; the part of the brain that stores this information tends to be affected later in the course of the disease. Capitalizing on these abilities can foster successes and maintain quality of life even into the moderate phase of the disease.
Drugs. Current Alzheimer’s medications can help for a time with memory symptoms and other cognitive changes. Two types of drugs are currently used to treat cognitive symptoms:
Sometimes other medications such as antidepressants are used to help control the behavioral symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease. But some medications should only be used with great caution. For example, some common sleep medications—zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta) and others—may increase confusion and the risk of falls.
Anti-anxiety medications—clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan)—increase the risk of falls, confusion and dizziness. Always check with your doctor before taking any new medications.
Creating a safe and supportive environment. Adapting the living situation to the needs of a person with Alzheimer’s is an important part of any treatment plan. For someone with Alzheimer’s, establishing and strengthening routine habits and minimizing memory-demanding tasks can make life much easier.
You can take these steps to support a person’s sense of well-being and continued ability to function:
Exercise. Regular exercise is an important part of everybody’s wellness plan—and those with Alzheimer’s are no exception. Activities such as a daily walk can help improve mood and maintain the health of joints, muscles and the heart.
Exercise can also promote restful sleep and prevent constipation. Make sure that the person with Alzheimer’s carries identification or wears a medical alert bracelet if she or he walks unaccompanied.
People with Alzheimer’s who develop trouble walking may still be able to use a stationary bike or participate in chair exercises. You may be able to find exercise programs geared to older adults on TV or on DVDs.
Nutrition. People with Alzheimer’s may forget to eat, lose interest in preparing meals or not eat a healthy combination of foods. They may also forget to drink enough, leading to dehydration and constipation.
Certain nutritional supplements are marketed as “medical foods” specifically to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve products marketed as medical foods. Despite marketing claims, there’s no definitive data showing that any of these supplements is beneficial or safe.
Alternative medicine. Various herbal mixtures, vitamins and other supplements are widely promoted as preparations that may support cognitive health or prevent or delay Alzheimer’s. Currently, there’s no strong evidence that any of these therapies slow the progression of cognitive decline.
Some of the treatments that have been studied recently include:
Supplements promoted for cognitive health can interact with medications you’re taking for Alzheimer’s disease or other health conditions. Work closely with your health care team to create a treatment plan that’s right for you. Make sure you understand the risks and benefits of everything it includes.