Health Secondary Story

Sue Ann Says: Is It Alzheimer’s or Normal Aging?

One of my best girlfriends asked me if losing her “readers” was a normal sign of aging. She can’t recall how many pairs of drugstore reading glasses she’s purchased and lost. She has no idea where they go, but suspects that she has left them on store counters, at restaurants after looking at the menu, or thrown them out with the Sunday paper. I don’t believe that inattentiveness is all that worrisome.

But, for some, times of forgetfulness could be the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease – a disease of the brain that begins slowly and gets worse over time.

In the United States, an estimated 5.4 million people (1 in 8 people) are living with Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2012 Alzheimer ’s Disease Facts and Figures report, in 2010 there were 110,000 people in Wisconsin age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s – a 10% increase from the year 2000. It’s estimated that by 2025 130,000 Wisconsinites will have the disease – a 30% increase from 2000!

 

What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is an illness of the brain. It causes large numbers of nerve cells in the brain to die. This affects a person’s ability to remember things, think clearly, and use good judgment. Doctors don’t know what causes the disease. They do know that most of the time it begins after age 60.

What happens when a person has Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease often starts slowly. In fact, some people don’t know they have it. They blame their forgetfulness on old age. However, over time, their memory problems get more serious. People with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble doing everyday things like driving a car, cooking a meal, or paying bills. They may get lost easily and find even simple things confusing. Some people become worried, angry, or violent. As the illness gets worse, most people with Alzheimer’s disease need someone to take care of all their needs, including feeding and bathing. Some people with Alzheimer’s live at home with a caregiver. Other people with the disease live in a nursing home.

What are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease?
It’s important to know the signs of Alzheimer’s disease so that you can get help right away.

Early signs:

  • Finding it hard to remember things
  • Asking the same questions over and over
  • Having trouble paying bills or solving simple math problems
  • Getting lost
  • Losing things or putting them in odd places

 

Later signs:

  • Forgetting how to brush your teeth or comb your hair
  • Being confused about time, people and places
  • Forgetting the names of common things such as a desk or apple.
  • Wandering away from home

What are the differences between Alzheimer’s disease and normal aging?

Alzheimer’s Disease Normal Signs of Aging
Making poor judgments and decisions a lot of the time Making a bad decision once in a while
Problems taking care of monthly bills Missing a monthly payment
Losing track of the date or time of year Forgetting which day it is and remembering it later
Trouble having a conversation Sometimes forgetting which word to use
Misplacing things often and being unable to find them Losing things from time to time

 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging

When should you see your doctor?
If you or someone in your family thinks your forgetfulness is getting in the way of your normal routine, it’s time to see your doctor. Seeing the doctor when you first start having memory problems can help you find out what’s causing your forgetfulness. If you have Alzheimer’s, finding the disease early gives you and your family more time to plan for your treatment and care. Your doctor or a specialist may do the following things to find out if you have Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Give you a medical check-up
  • Ask how well you can do everyday things like driving, shopping for food, and paying bills
  • Talk with someone in your family about your memory problems
  • Test your memory, problem-solving, counting, and language skills
  • Check your blood and urine, and do other medical tests
  • Do brain scans that show pictures of your brain

There are medicines that can treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. But, there is no cure. Most of these medicines work best for people in the early or middle stages of the disease. For example, they can keep your memory loss from getting worse for a time.

Coping as a caregiver
If you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you may have many different feelings. Sometimes, taking care of the person with Alzheimer’s makes you feel good because you are providing love and comfort. At other times, it can be overwhelming. You may see changes in the person that are hard to understand and cope with. Each day brings new challenges.

The good news is that there is help for caregivers. You don’t have to do everything yourself. For ways to get help:

  • Find a support group
  • Use adult day care services
  • Get help from a local home health agency
  • Contact local and national groups about Alzheimer’s (in Wisconsin contact the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org [enter your ZIP code for local chapters], the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute at www.wai.wisc.edu, and the Alzheimer’s & Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin at www.alzwisc.org

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, know that you’re not alone. There are people who understand what you are going through, and help is available. Having Alzheimer’s does not mean you stop taking part in life. Learn about the resources available to help you cope, remain active and plan ahead.

Because it all begins with a healthy woman…

Sue Ann Thompson is founder and president of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF), a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to help Wisconsin women and their families reach their healthiest potential. WWHF provides programs and conducts forums that focus on education, prevention, and early detection of diseases that affect women the most; connects individuals to health resources; produces and distributes the most up-to-date health education and resource materials; and, awards grants and scholarships to women health researchers and related community non-profits. To learn more, visit wwhf.org or call 1-800-448-5148.