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Ventura County Perspective

For Alzheimer's Patients, Caregivers, Help Is Available

April 29, 2001|SANDRA McMULLEN | Sandra McMullen holds a master's degree in gerontology and is director of education for the Alzheimer's Assn. Ventura County Chapter

President Reagan's journey through Alzheimer's disease draws everyone's attention to his or her own memory problems. It makes us aware of the challenges faced by the person with the disease and by their family members.

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain occurring in one out of 10 people older than 65 and half of those older than 85. In Ventura County, there are 12,000 people with the disease.

Alzheimers is not a normal age-related change. Memory loss happens to all of us at one time or another, but "senior moments" that occur frequently and interfere with daily activities can be a warning sign of something more serious.

Alzheimer's disease impairs the thought processes. People with this disease usually have difficulty with tasks such as balancing a checkbook, dressing correctly or using appropriate words.

People who experience drastic changes in personality, becoming extremely confused, suspicious or fearful, should report these changes to their physician. Rapid mood swings for no apparent reason, including tears and anger, also can be an indication of a problem warranting further investigation.

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There are other causes for these symptoms, which is why it is important to see a physician for an evaluation. The biggest mimic of Alzheimer's disease is depression. Depression is one of many conditions that can cause memory loss or dementia. Other conditions include Parkinson's disease, multi-infarct dementia, Pick's disease, Lewy body disease, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, normal-pressure hydrocephalus, Huntington's disease and brain injuries.

Memory can also be impaired by drug interactions, poor nutrition, dehydration, stress and thyroid problems. These conditions are reversible if detected early.

About 70% of the 4 million Americans with Alzheimer's disease are cared for at home; 80% of their caregivers suffer from high levels of stress and nearly half suffer from depression. Caregivers may experience burnout and need help in caring for someone 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

Caregivers are called the second victim of Alzheimer's disease. Stress can lead to serious health problems. Caregivers should watch for the following stress indicators: denial, anger, exhaustion, sleeplessness, irritability, lack of concentration and other health problems.

Not only does Alzheimer's disease present challenges to caregivers, it is a mystery to researchers who are working to find the cause and cure. Even though we do not have a cure, the future is hopeful. Medications that treat the symptoms of this disease are now available, with additional ones to be released in the near future. Technology assists the physician in early identification of changes in the brain.

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If you are seeing signs that concern you and the symptoms are impairing your day-to-day activities, talk with your physician or seek out evaluation at a center for geriatric assessment. Memory can be affected by many treatable conditions.

For a free brochure titled "Is It Alzheimer's? Warning Signs You Should Know," for information about programs and services providing help and hope to those affected by Alzheimer's disease and dementia, or to talk with a specialist, call the Alzheimer's Assn. Ventura County Chapter at 485-5597.

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