June is Alzheimer's Awareness month: How does it affect people's lives?

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and it currently affects an estimated 6.2 Americans of all ages, including one in nine people age 65 and older (11.3%). Researchers still do not fully know the cause of the disease, but it is thought that in early-onset cases there may be a genetic cause, and in later-onset cases it is probably a combination of genetics as well as environmental and lifestyle causes. Given the prevalence of the disease, it is important to recognize the ways it affects people’s lives.


Alzheimer’s is generally thought of as progressing from mild, to moderate, and finally to severe. These can also be thought of as the early, middle and late stages of the disease progression.


Mild Stage

This stage is when most people will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At this time, people may notice difficulty in memory and reasoning that interfere with their daily lives. Some common issues may come in remembering people’s names after being introduced, losing or misplacing common objects, trouble planning or organizing, forgetting material that was just read, or struggling to come up with the right word or phrase.


It is common for friends, family, and even coworkers to be the ones that notice something isn’t quite right during this stage. People will still be able to perform most of their daily routines unassisted, but these tasks might start to get more difficult over time.


Moderate Stage

During this stage, people can still remember significant details about their lives and loved ones, but gaps in memories may be present. Difficulty with more daily tasks is expected, and assistance becomes necessary. People may struggle to recall the names of those around them. Assistance in eating and using the restroom can become necessary. People may also struggle to remember important information like their home address -- and safety measures must usually be put in place at this stage.


Other common disruptions to cognition include a struggle to dress appropriately for the season or situation, as well as general confusion about the time and place one finds themselves in.


Severe Stage

At this time, full-time assistance is required. Losses include communication, and the ability to respond to the environment and carry on a conversation. Eventually, basic movement control deteriorates and one might not be able to sit up or lift their head without assistance.


Muscle rigidity and abnormal movements are expected. It is not uncommon for people in this stage to spend most or all of their time in bed, as their motor skills wind down and other cognitive and bodily issues limit their ability to function unassisted.


While there is no cure for the disease yet, there are many treatment options available aimed at preventing or slowing the progression of the disease. These include drugs to treat symptoms related to memory, judgement, and processing abilities. Treatment needs and effectiveness vary from person to person, but with the right medication and lifestyle adjustments many live a fulfilling life well into their diagnosis.


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