November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Later, in 1994 he would be diagnosed with the disease himself. At that time around 2 million Americans suffered from the disease. The numbers today are much higher, with approximately 5.4 million Americans living with the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. It is the sixth leading cause of death in our country – approximately 500,000 per year.
Slight alterations within a gene can lead to abnormal proteins being created. Over time, these proteins build up and lead to Alzheimer’s. Early onset Alzheimer’s has a strong genetic component, while later onset has a less clear family history. People can’t control their genetics; however there are modifiable risk factors that include hypertension, diabetes, and diet and exercise. Diet and exercise can directly and indirectly affect the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Many contributing factors can be improved and even prevented through a healthy diet and regular exercise. Additionally, researchers believe a diet rich in antioxidants could not only slow the decline of brain disease, but possibly improve function after the onset. Studies are underway to determine if exercise can improve learning and memory. Yet another reason for Diabetic patients to keep their blood sugar under control is that insulin resistance has a strong link to how the body and the brain age. Insulin resistance leads directly to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, small vessel strokes, and diabetes. All of these, as previously mentioned, contribute to the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Now, coming full circle, the best safeguard against insulin resistance is exercise and a healthy diet.
Current treatment involves medications used to help memory temporarily. These do nothing to treat the root cause of the disease. However, research is ongoing and new drugs in development will aim to modify the actual disease process, attempting to slow or even stop the progression. Further, researchers are currently conducting testing on a possible nasal vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease. This involves successfully removing beta – amyloid proteins (thought to be one of the causes of the disease) in the brains of mice. Like other vaccines, this could feasibly use the body’s own immune system to eliminate the proteins that cause Alzheimer’s, preventing the progression of the disease.
What can healthcare professionals do? First let’s discuss caring for the patient. A hospital setting can be unsettling for anyone, but especially when dementia is involved. Increased confusion and anxiety are common in Alzheimer’s patients. In a best case scenario, a family member or friend would be by the patient’s bedside throughout their hospital stay. Obviously, this isn’t always possible. The National Institutes of Health have published a great list of tips when communicating and caring for a patient with Alzheimer’s. These include not using the intercom to communicate since it may make the patient fearful, and using short sentences, with concrete language. Also, we should allow plenty of time for the patient to answer our questions. NIH says at least 20 seconds. They suggest “hiding” tubes such as IVs (place a gauze wrap over the IV site), NG tubes (tape to the side of the face and run tube behind the ear), and Foley catheters (have the patient wear undergarments to decrease access to the catheter.)
Communities all over the nation are participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Find a walk near you at the Alzheimer’s Association website and join the effort to fund research, care and ultimately end this devastating disease. If you are interested in learning more, much of the information in this article regarding research came from an HBO documentary called The Alzheimer’s Project.