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Alzheimer's Diagnosis - Part 1



The Alzheimer’s Association has designated June as Alzheimer and Brain Awareness month. During this month, I will pen a series of blogs discussing the legal planning that needs to take place once a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is made.

As many of you know, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is not only life changing for the person with the disease but for the family as well. The knowledge that a loved one will slowly slip away is emotionally devastating but also presents many practical issues that must be addressed from preparing for daily care to making sure all financial and legal affairs are in order. But before we go into those issues, let’s take a brief look at the disease itself.

Alzheimer’s continues to be largely misunderstood despite the amount of information that is available. There are many people who still believe that Alzheimer’s is just an issue with memory. The fact is this disease is fatal and is now the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

Alzheimer’s destroys nerve cells and the tissue in the brain effecting the memory but as the disease progresses, it causes the brain to shrink and the cells to die. Eventually people with this disease lose the ability to communicate, recognize loved ones and take care of themselves.

Life expectancy for those with this disease varies with the average being 8 to 10 years after diagnosis however it could be as short as 3 years to as long as 20. The average length of time between the onset of Alzheimer’s and the diagnosis about 3 years -- and because each person is unique, each person’s journey into this disease is different.

There are over 45 million people worldwide living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia with these numbers expected to grow to 76 million in less than 15 years. In research conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly one-quarter of the respondents believed that a family history must be present in order for them to be at risk. Although family history does play a part, this disease can strike anyone.

Research does indicate that those who have a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop the disease. The risk increases if more than one family member has the illness. When diseases tend to run in families, either heredity (genetics) or environmental factors, or both, may play a role. There are also other factors that may also affect the development of Alzheimer’s.

There does appear to be a link between serious head trauma and the future risk of developing this disease. Car accidents, frequent injuries resulting in concussions and falls that may be experienced by the elderly may be linked to Alzheimer’s. Taking preventive steps like wearing seat belts, using protective head gear when playing sports or fall proofing a senior’s home can be helpful.

There is also a large body of medical research that finds a heart health and brain connection. Those who have coronary artery disease, where the blood vessels are clogged, may run an increased risk for vascular dementia caused by clogged vessels in the brain. Taking the appropriate medication and watching your diet is key if you have such a diagnosis.

Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s also targets some races and ethnicities more than others. Medical research reveals that older Latinos are about one and a half time as likely as whites to develop this disease and other dementias while older African-Americans are twice as likely to have the disease. The reasons for this are not understood enough to make any definitive connections as to why however these groups do have higher rates of vascular disease as a group than do whites.

One final piece of information about Alzheimer’s – it is not just a disease of the elderly.

Early onset Alzheimer’s can strike those in their 30s, 40s and 50s. It is now estimated that over one-quarter of a million people in the United States are living with an early onset of this disease. I point this out because those with Alzheimer’s symptoms, no matter what age, need to discuss their concerns with their primary care doctor especially if a family history is present.

There are ten symptoms of this disease:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts normal living

  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems

  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home or work

  4. Confusion with time or place

  5. New problems with words in speaking or writing

  6. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps

  7. Decreased or poor judgement

  8. Trouble understanding special relationships

  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities

  10. Changes in mood or personality

If you notice any of these warning signs in yourself or someone you know, seek or suggest a medical consult. Although there is no cure, with the new medications and treatments that are available, a person with an early diagnosis can have a longer period of independence.

Once diagnosed, it is imperative that legal planning begin. Such planning should include the following:

  1. Gathering, reviewing and updating existing legal documents

  2. Making legal plans for all finances and property

  3. Putting plans in place for future healthcare and long-term care needs

  4. Planning for someone to make decisions for you when you no longer can.

Although it may seem that addressing these issues may be overwhelming at such an emotional time, early planning and attention to these details can alleviate additional stress as the disease progresses.

In next week's blog, I will discuss the beginning of the planning process.


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