Alzheimer’s Facts - by Sheena Bumpas (NAHCA CNA Commission Member)

I became a certified nurse aid in 2012. At that time, CNN released an article about Charlton Heston showing signs of Alzheimer’s. In the article, they stated around five-million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease. Today the Alzheimer’s Association reports that more than 5.5 million Americans have the disease. They encourage everyone to learn the facts, symptoms, and what to do if you or a loved one is diagnosed.

Alzheimer’s and other dementias are still being studied because they are difficult to understand. In 1906, a German researcher named Alois Alzheimer began to study a 55-year-old woman that had unexplained memory loss, disorientation, and hallucinations. Upon her death, Alzheimer and his colleague performed an autopsy on the woman. They found two characteristics that changed everything; tangles of protein in her brain nerves and plaques of polymers encasing the nerves. This set in-motion people being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Since 1906, many doctors and researchers have studied the disease. However, none has found a cure. Estimates put the number of Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 16 million in 2050. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that 1 in 3 seniors die with Alzheimer’s or other dementia and every 66 seconds someone new develops the disease. It is rated as the sixth leading cause of death in America, however some researchers believe it should be listed as the third leading cause.

Not only are these numbers outrageous, but so is the cost in care and study for the disease. With government subsidies and private citizen’s contributions, 259 billion dollars are being spent annually in America. Of course, with the numbers increasing so will the amount of money being spent. On May 5, 2017, Congress signed into law an increase to 1.4 billion dollars to the National Institutes of Health for Alzheimer’s research. This research is needed due to it being the only disease from the top 10 to have no cure.

Besides being educated with facts, knowing the symptoms is essential. A common misunderstanding is that Alzheimer’s and dementia are a normal part of growing old. Alzheimer’s is a disease that has seven stages. It mostly affects people over 65, but it can also be early onset in people around age 40. Because Alzheimer’s begins in the part of the brain that affects learning, the first symptom is often forgetting newly learned things. However, the symptoms progress at different rates.

Many family members that I have talked to became worried when their loved ones starting to forget simple tasks, such as turning off the stove. Along with the memory loss, other symptoms often show up. Some of these are disorientation, mood changes, becoming suspicious of family and friends, and confusion about common things, times, and places. As it gets to the last few stages problems such as swallowing, speaking, and walking can appear.

Because the disease affects newest learned stuff, this is often why people in late stages of Alzheimer’s forget their children’s names, husband or wife’s name, and it is common for women to forget their married name and only remember their maiden name. They start thinking their kids may be their siblings, thinking their kids are at school when they are actually grown, or needing to find their mommy and daddy when they are in distress. Alzheimer’s causes people to regress in their age. In the final stage, the person with Alzheimer’s can be completely dependent on their caretaker. This is why this disease is horrible and takes such a toll on the family and friends.

Caregivers are necessary for Alzheimer’s. Besides the 259 billion dollars spent currently, it is estimated that 15 million Americans provide unpaid care that would cost over 230 billion dollars and 18.2 billion hours of care. Because the care given to a loved one is so emotionally and financially hard, 35% of caregivers report their health has gotten worse in the process. Women are more likely to get the disease than men, often causing their kids or husbands to juggle work, other kids, and the woman’s role in the family, causing extra stress. Everyone is affected by this disease.

Alzheimer’s is such a huge, life-changing event that is overwhelming to most people. At the first sign of any symptoms, take your loved one to a doctor. Several medications are used to try to slow the disease process. In addition, there are organizations that are available to help aid in the decisions that need to be made concerning a loved one. A few of these are the National Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, and local support groups. The most important thing to remember is although Alzheimer’s is a tragic disease; there is help available so you do not have to do it alone.

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