This September marked the 10th anniversary of World Alzheimer’s Month – a month dedicated to raising awareness about Alzheimer’s disease. This month’s theme is “Know Alzheimer’s, Know Dementia”. Today’s article therefore aims to provide readers with helpful information about Alzheimer’s disease.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a common form of dementia. It is also a cumulative disease that affects certain areas of the brain that are responsible for memory, language and behaviour. It accelerates the decline of cognitive processes which are responsible for comprehension, recollection, interpretation and attentiveness. There are three general stages of Alzheimer’s disease: the early stage, middle stage and late-stage which are also commonly referred to as mild, moderate and severe, respectively in a medical context.
During this stage, the person is still independent and functional. However, minor symptoms begin to materialize, such as forgetting words or the location of objects.
This is typically the longest stage. During the middle stage of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia symptoms are more conspicuous. The person may confuse words, become easily flustered, stressed or angry, and act in unusual ways, such as refusing to take baths. Due to the damage to the nerve cells in the brain, it can be difficult for these persons to articulate their feelings and thoughts, and perform tasks without assistance.
In this final stage of the disease, dementia symptoms are severe and extensive care is needed. Some people lose the ability to respond to their environment, to carry on a conversation and to control movement. In addition, communication becomes difficult, memory and cognition worsen, and personality changes occur.
Some other prominent symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include challenges with planning or problem solving, difficulty completing familiar tasks, confusion with time or place, and losing the ability to retrace steps.
Though there have been multiple case studies on the disease, there is no lone cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, there are a plethora of factors that may contribute to the onset of the illness such as genetics, environment and lifestyle. In addition, there are also other agents that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, such as smoking, alcohol use, high cholesterol and diabetes.
How to mitigate the onset of Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's disease affects more than 4,000 Barbadians (Joy Springer; 2017). Whilst this statistic may leave some feeling anxious, fortunately, there are many ways to attenuate the development of the illness. Eating healthy foods such as green leafy vegetables at least 6 times a week, and drinking a glass of wine at least once a week, have both been scientifically proven to decelerate the decline of cognitive processes. In addition, nuts and berries ameliorate cognitive functions such as remembering and learning, by increasing blood flow to key areas of the brain, and improving memory and attention span. On the other hand, foods to avoid in order to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease are those that are high in saturated fats or trans-fatty acids, such as butter, margarine, cheese, pastries and fast food. These unhealthy fats decrease brain health over time which leads to degenerative diseases.
Equally, engaging in mentally refreshing activities improves brain health. Just as your body needs exercise, so does your brain. Reading requires many brain functions, like vision, language, and associative learning which requires eye and cognitive coordination. Here are two activities that can enhance your cognitive ability and mitigate against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease:
Word games- they are great for problem-solving.
Keeping a journal- helps to keep track of any achievements throughout your day, and aids with memory and recollection.
In addition, a recommended 150 minutes of exercise weekly is great for reducing health risks, and social engagement is vital. Humans do not flourish properly in isolation and thanks to Covid-19, this is not getting easier.
Personal Testimony: How does Alzheimer's Disease affect loved ones?
As someone who cares for a family member who is affected by this disease, I can personally say that having to look after, or even just visiting a family member diagnosed with Alzheimer’s can be difficult and disheartening. From the memories they never seem to remember, or have a recollection of, to a slight change in mood and tone, the impact of Alzheimer’s can be very hard to handle. The person you once looked up to and love wholeheartedly can now somewhat appear to be a hollow shell of who they once used to be. Initially, them not remembering where the bathroom was or what size clothes they wear may seem inconsequential, but when they begin to lose the precious memories you once shared and cherished together, it really hits home as to how much this disease has not only affected that person themself, but their surrounding friends and family who love them. Us, loved ones don't get the chance to easily settle in when it comes to this disease. We have to put up with constant assurance, constantly looking over our shoulders, unprepared for any incidents that may occur.
It may not seem major for onlookers or to some of the readers of this article but having a family member or loved one affected by Alzheimer's disease can have a large impact on your life and in most cases, it is usually a negative one. However, there will be moments where you connect with that person and make new memories. The tunnel might be dark and gloomy but there will be some light.
Tips to help a person suffering with Alzheimer's Disease
Planning activities with a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease may be difficult but here are a few tips to keep your loved one active and calm:
Create a peaceful environment:
Make sure that there are little to no distractions, no loud noises and that there is good lighting.
Scientists believe that maintaining social interaction positively impacts memory and cognition skills. Of course, care must be exercised within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Plan an activity that they once enjoyed. If you’re uncertain of what they may have enjoyed or if their illness prohibits them from doing the activity in mind, one could encourage them to do arts and craft, and read, which can be used as ways to stimulate the brain, show emotions and reduce stress.
Encourage them to participate in household chores:
Simple household tasks such as raking the yard, sweeping or making an uncomplicated breakfast dish can create a feeling of purposefulness and re-establish a role.
Exercises must first be approved by the patient’s doctor. However, the benefits of exercise include enhanced moods, sleep patterns and memory. Exercise also facilitates the maintenance of motor skills and improves strength, which may reduce the risk of falls.
It is also beneficial to encourage an emotional connection by doing simple things like dancing with them, playing music they liked or just music from their time, inviting friendly animals, and children to visit and interact with them, in a safe way. However due to Covid- 19, there have been strict rules when it comes to visitation, therefore impacting the opportunities for persons suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in homes to build or maintain an emotional connection with friends and family.
This article was collaboratively written by the following secondary and tertiary level students, who participate in the Youth Arm of the Barbados Alzheimer’s Association and/or the Millie Lily Movement:
Jayme Kinch, (15 years old), Jazz Watson (15 years old), Frances Caesar, (16 years old), Shanni St. Pierre (16 years old), Ashley Gibson (18 years old), Malachi Morgan (18 years old), Terriesha Greene- Stevenson (18 years old), Ean Bynoe (18 years old).