November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month—an important opportunity to shed light on a condition that is often misperceived as untreatable. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but dementia from Alzheimer’s continues to be underdiagnosed and underreported. In fact, according to a U.S. survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association, almost half of patients with AD are already in the moderate to severe stages by the time they are diagnosed. This lack of attention to the early stages of Alzheimer’s is unfortunate, because there are things we can do to help those who are starting to experience memory loss and support the people who are caring for them. Although a cure does not yet exist, available treatment options can help to slow down the progression of symptoms, especially if diagnosed early.
Caring for Someone with Alzheimer’s Disease
AD poses real challenges not only for the people diagnosed with the disease but also for the 15 million Americans who assume caregiving responsibilities. The multitude of obligations can have a huge impact on caregivers, with one out of every two of them developing major depression. The economic burden of providing care is huge as well. In 2016, the annual cost of care was $230 billion in the U.S. alone.
Many of my patients and their caregivers are hoping and waiting for a cure to become available. Even though there are novel drugs and other interventions in various phases of research and development, patients’ mental states continue to deteriorate with each passing day as their families wait for a disease-modifying treatment. The road to development and approval of a new drug is long and rigorous, and only a small percentage of medicines ever make it to market. This is time that Alzheimer’s patients simply cannot afford to waste.
A diagnosis will spur family members to start a conversation about planning for the future—a difficult, yet necessary discussion that they may have shied away from without a clear understanding of their loved one’s health. Timing is crucial because this planning phase must be done while the patient is still capable of sharing their wishes and competent to execute all the necessary legal documents, such as medical and financial powers of attorney, a will, advance health care directives, trusts, etc. These preparations enable the family to understand their loved one’s preferences for long-term and end-of-life care and give them the legal authority to see them through once their loved one has lost the ability to handle their own affairs.
The Treatment Journey
While there are no treatments available that can prevent, cure or change the underlying progression of Alzheimer’s disease, there are medications that can help minimize symptoms for a while. Once again, early diagnosis is key since each prescription is approved for different stages of the disease. These medicines can help people living with AD maintain their cognitive abilities and continue functioning at higher levels longer.
In addition to pharmaceutical treatments, there are also lifestyle choices that can help lower the risk of developing the disease and stabilize the symptoms of AD for those who already have it. These activities include regular physical exercise, stress management, proper diet, and prompt treatment of medical conditions like hypertension and high cholesterol. These lifestyle modifications can have a huge impact on a person’s brain health.
If you are concerned about a loved one’s memory, encourage them to go see a doctor. The good news might be that there is nothing to worry about, but if a problem is detected, ask about available treatment options. Early diagnosis and proactive treatment could help some of the 5.5 million Americans who are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones.