November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, a time to heighten awareness about Alzheimer’s disease and to show support for the more than 6.2 million Americans living with this disease. Alzheimer's disease is a form of memory impairment, along with mild cognitive impairment and dementia. Understanding the similarities and differences between these conditions can allow you to better recognize the warning signs and seek appropriate help and consultation.
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
Memory impairment, language problems, or poor judgment are not always severe, and can be the result of diabetes, depression, or stroke. In fact, these changes in abilities could be mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is the stage between what is considered normal aging and the more severe decline of dementia.
Forgetting things more often, feeling overwhelmed by decision making, becoming more impulsive, or showing signs of depression, anxiety, or apathy are some of the symptoms of MCI. Often, a person is aware of what is happening, as are their family members, and MCI usually does not prevent them from going about their regular activities. And while having MCI can increase the risk of later developing dementia caused by Alzheimer's disease or other neurological conditions, it doesn’t necessarily always occur. Individuals with MCI might never experience worse symptoms. Or, they might even improve.
There are two types of mild cognitive impairment:
- Amnestic MCT - This concerns memory issues like forgetting a conversation or misplacing an item and not being able to remember where it is.
- Non-amnestic MCI – Signs of non-amnestic MCI include losing one’s train of thought while speaking to someone, finding it difficult to maintain concentration while working on a task, and becoming disoriented in a familiar place.
Healthy Habits are Key
As part of your Alzheimer’s awareness and knowledge of all cognitive disorders, it’s important to know there isn’t a magic pill for avoiding the onset of MCI. However, evidence shows that healthy habits can make a tremendous difference in preventing or reducing cognitive decline. These habits can include exercising, eating right, staying connected with other people, engaging in mentally stimulating activities (particularly learning new things, like a new hobby or language), and taking medications as prescribed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “dementia” is not a specific disease. Rather, it is a general term for memory impairment, as well as difficulty with thinking or making decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities. Medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, and strokes are common causes of dementia. Although dementia mostly affects older adults, it is not a part of normal aging. In rare cases, a person can develop dementia in mid-life. Factors that increase the risk for dementia include:
- Age - Most cases of dementia involve people 65 years and older
- Poor heart health - Conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking can increase the risk of dementia if not properly treated
- Family history - A person with parents or siblings with dementia is more like to develop dementia
- Traumatic brain injury - Head injuries can be a risk factor, more so when they are severe or occur repeatedly
There are times when a person seems to be exhibiting signs of dementia, but they are actually reacting to other factors, such as a medication, an emotional distress such as anxiety or depression, drinking too much alcohol, infections or blood clots in the brain, problems with thyroid or kidney, and so on. It’s always important to see a physician when anything out of the ordinary is going on so that you can get a proper diagnosis.
There is no treatment that can stop or slow dementia. Medication can temporarily improve or stabilize memory and thinking skills in some people, and it might have an effect on certain symptoms. The right team of physicians, nurses, and therapists can assist patients and their families with addressing mobility, speech difficulties, swallowing problems, and more.
One of the most common types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, is caused by specific changes in the brain. An individual may begin to have trouble remembering recent events, such as a conversation that occurred minutes or hours ago. Later in the disease, that same person can no longer remember events or people from their past. There also can be problems with walking or talking, as well as personality changes.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people with Alzheimer’s may:
- Repeat statements and questions over and over
- Forget conversations, appointments, or events, and not remember them later
- Routinely misplace possessions, often putting them in illogical locations
- Get lost in familiar places
- Eventually forget the names of family members and everyday objects
- Have trouble finding the right words to identify objects, express thoughts, or take part in conversations
- Experience changes in personality and behavior, such as depression, apathy, mood swings, irritability, distrust, problems sleeping, loss of inhibitions, delusions, and wandering
Stages of the Disease
There are three stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but no two people move through them in the same way:
- Early (mild). Symptoms of this stage include mild forgetfulness, problems with concentration, misplacing things, and struggling with handling money. Individuals in this stage may be aware of these problems.
- Middle (moderate). This is the longest stage. Individuals in this stage can no longer remember events and they can experience difficulty learning new things, as well as challenges with reading and writing. They lose track of time and place, and they need help with daily grooming. They become withdrawn and can become restless, irritable, or anxious. Wandering can also occur in this stage.
- Late (severe). In this stage, physical abilities can fade away and individuals may need 24/7 assistance. They lose control of bodily functions and can no longer have a conversation.
As part of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, it’s important to know that family history is the most important risk factor. In fact, having a first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s disease increases the risk of developing it by 10 to 30 percent.
A Bright Spot
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, music and art can enrich the lives of people with Alzheimer's disease even after dementia has progressed. In fact, musical perception, musical emotion, and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory and cognitive function have disappeared. Other activities that can still be accessible to a person in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease include pedaling an indoor bicycle, dancing, drawing, painting, and throwing a baseball. These are known as “procedural memories.”
Finding the Right Living Situation for Someone with Memory Impairment
While no proven method for prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, MCI, or other forms of dementia exists, most experts recommend following a healthy active lifestyle for sound brain health. At Clearwater Living, residents in memory support have the benefit of a balanced lifestyle through programming that incorporates the Six Dimensions of Living Well.
Our diverse programs, amenities, and events promote physical activity, stimulate the mind, bring purpose and meaning to life, encourage social engagement, provide an environment that’s beautiful for effortless living, and nourish the mind and body. Our specially designed Clearbrook Memory Care neighborhoods are easy to navigate and foster a sense of pride and independence for residents of all abilities.