Alzheimer’s disease: at the first signs, consult your physician

Physician and specialists work hand in hand to treat people with dementia. (Photo: auric Hörsysteme GmbH & Co. KG)

Establishing an early dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnostic is important in order to alleviate the symptoms or the evolution of the illness. To this day, however, there is no cure to this illness.

Forgetfulness is a very human characteristic. The rate at which we tend to forget things, and how much we forget, is determined among others by the degree of interest, of emotionality and of importance we attach to a particular piece of information. To be sure, however, mental performance subsides as years go by. Recent studies show that logical thinking and memory begin to decrease already at the age of 45 years.

Importance of an early diagnostic

It seems quite normal that mental and physical capacities undergo some changes with age. Nevertheless, it is important to take signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease seriously. The earliest an eventual diagnosis is established, the better any secondary forms of dementia can be treated successfully.

Early therapeutic measures contribute to alleviate the symptoms and the evolution of the disease. Maintaining a high level of autonomy in the day to day life can be achieved over a longer period of time, which makes it possible to maintain a good quality of life. Further, an early recognition of the symptoms makes planning the coming years all the more easy.

Seven warning signs

The American National Institute on Aging has formulated seven warning signs that can indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease:

When a person…
1. always asks the same question.
2. always tells the same story.
3. does not know anymore where usual objects belong.
4. does not know anymore how to deal with money, paying bills, etc.
5. does not find a certain object anymore, or places it in a different place and suspects somebody else to have taken it.
6. neglects his appearance while denying this is happening.
7. answers questions by asking the same question over and over.

For people in the near entourage of a person showing these warning signs, this may prompt them to seek medical advice. To begin with, this usually occurs with the family doctor, who in many cases has known the patient for many years and is best placed to assess changes in the patient’s mental and functional capacities. The various dementia symptoms as well as the complexity of the diagnosis require a close collaboration between physicians and specialists.

Showing empathy towards patients with dementia is very important. (Photo: Mölnlycke Health Care GmbH)

Alzheimer’s: diagnosis and therapy

For most people, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease comes as a shock. Even though Alzheimer’s disease is incurable, there are a variety of tests and therapies that can provide some relief.

A careful diagnosis involves a thorough examination of the physical as well as of the mental condition of the patient. Psychological tests are performed in order to assess intellectual capacity, as well as language and perception skills.

Mini mental-status test

An example of such testing procedures is the Mini-Mental-Status-Test (MMST). This test has proved to be a reliable way to assess the patient’s condition and to monitor the evolution of the illness. It includes an assessment of orientation, memory capacity, attention and calculation as well as language and constructive faculties.

Apart from physical and mental examination, the laboratory analysis and imaging processes can provide important information on other illnesses. Face-to-face conversations with the patient and his close relatives are also an equally important part of the process.

Memory clinics

Most major cities have institutions that are specialised in dementia diagnosis and therapy. Such an offer can also include the so-called memory clinics.

In spite of intensive research, no cure to Alzheimer’s has been found yet. (Photo: Martin Gapa/pixelio.de)

Medical and non-medical therapy

Once the dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis has been established, there is no hope for healing. The therapy is limited to the alleviation of the symptoms and to slowing down the evolution of the illness. The patient’s quality of life as well as his self-determination should be maintained for as long as possible.

In terms of therapy, two approaches can be applied, consisting in drug therapy and drug-free therapy. Generally speaking, a combination of both will be chosen.

The medication is intended to improve the mental capacities of the patient as well as to help him to cope with daily life or to alleviate behavioural disorders, and in some cases to prevent further damage to the brain. Also, the medication can help to increase the amount of chemical substances that transport information from one brain cell to another. Medication can also intervene when other secondary illnesses are also present.

Maintaining a feeling of self-worth

Medication-free therapy is intended to help the patient maintain or develop his mental or physical capacities. Such activities may include exercise therapy, memory training, and artistic or recreational activities such as painting, cooking, or speech therapy.

Emotional aspects

Equally important is the way to accompany a person with dementia with empathy. For the family members of a patient with dementia, the process of experiencing how a beloved person is becoming gradually more estranged can be very distressing and painful. Showing incomprehension can be a normal reaction, however it is not very helpful. One should become aware that logical and complicated explanations are not a solution. Instead, qualities such as patience, empathy and devotion should be developed.

Text: Patrick Gunti – 01/2012
Translation: MyH
Photos: pixelio, Mölnlycke Health Care GmbH, auric Hörsysteme GmbH & Co. KG