September 21st is World Alzheimer Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about Alzheimer’s disease, how we can prevent it and support people who have received a diagnosis. But many of us know very little about the disease, a disease that makes a huge impact on the lives of those who have it and their families. So keep reading to find out more…
Understanding cognitive impairment
Alzheimer’s disease is primarily known as a form of cognitive impairment. However, not all mental decline coming with age is Alzheimer’s disease. Actually, Alzheimer’s is a specific form of dementia, which is different from mild cognitive impairment (MCI). People with cognitive impairment experience, to varying degrees, a loss of or decline in memory and other cognitive abilities. It may cause a notable impairment of memory, but individuals can still perform most activities of daily living, and is not always accompanied by functional disability.
Most importantly, not all people with MCI progress to a form of dementia, in fact most people will not. MCI is sometimes a transitional stage between normal ageing and Alzheimer’s disease. The key difference is that those with dementia will have a decline in cognitive abilities that is severe enough to interfere with daily life.
Signs of dementia can include a decline in memory, difficulty in learning of new information, in judgement and thinking abilities such as planning, organising and general information processing. The cognitive decline can often come together with a decline in emotional control and motivation, or with a change in social behaviour.
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60–80% of all dementia cases. It is characterised by an impairment in the essential neural pathways involved in neuroplasticity, an increasing decline in communication between neurons and the death of neural cells. In simple terms, the brain’s ability to change, i.e. take on new information or form new memories, is reduced, and the brain’s functioning as usual begins to decline.
People with advanced Alzheimer’s disease show significant brain shrinkage due to this.
Living with Alzheimer’s
Mental decline affects our physical abilities and daily life. Those experiencing cognitive impairment may have difficulty in carrying out essential activities of daily living, for example, bathing, dressing and eating, and other key activities such as shopping, preparing meals, and making phone calls. Sometimes, dementia can result in a total dependency on others. In the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, individuals may become totally dependent on others to perform these tasks. This may have a significant impact on their families and loved ones, since it is possible that people with Alzheimer’s will no longer be able to recognise family and friends, they might lose the ability to communicate and to move. Community support for people living with Alzheimer’s and their families becomes essential.
However, improving the lives of people living with Alzheimer’s is possible. Receiving a diagnosis of dementia is not a death sentence, and it is very common among the ageing population nowadays. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to ameliorate the condition, when detected at early stages.
What can be of help?
Early detection: noticing signs of cognitive decline at early stages is the best way to stop and even revert the damage with targeted lifestyle interventions. Here at Beingwell we have a simple tool for you to check your brain power: our MyCQ assessment provides a clinically validated snapshot of your current cognitive health. Head on over to your Wellometer page to unlock MyCognition and discover your brain snapshot. It will not provide you with a diagnosis of MCI of dementia, but it can give you a hint about something going not very well, which you can investigate with a further professional medical check.
Healthy lifestyle: this is ultimately our secret weapon against Alzheimer, both as a prevention throughout the entire lifespan and as a therapy to live better with the condition. What we eat, the quality of our sleep, regular movement, lifelong learning and mental resilience to stress, all have an impact on our brain functioning and protect us against decline. Check our bank of blogs, webinars and resources to learn more about how moving well, eating well, sleeping well, thinking well and coping well can make a difference.
Targeted interventions: both drug and non-drug targeted interventions can help those living with Alzheimer’s. Scientific research is moving fast and just last year a new medication was approved by the FDA. Non-drug interventions may include cognitive rehabilitation, exergames and targeted lifestyle prescriptions. In all the cases we recommend to always refer to professional advice as not all the solutions fit with everyone. Personalised interventions can help people live better depending on what stage the condition is and what activities of daily living are mostly impacted.
Support: last but not least, referring to support networks online and to local support communities is essential for both those receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and for any members of family or carers living everyday with the burden of the condition. Support may go from simple exchange of experiences to professional psychological support, as well as home assistance or local recreational groups. It’s not unusual to develop depression in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and burnout in the carers. Living in a community of sharing and support can make living with the condition much easier.
The effects of Alzheimer’s, dementia, cognitive decline, can be difficult on those suffering, and their loved ones so it’s important that we take care of our own wellbeing while supporting those in need. It’s important to seek the support you need to support those you want to support too. It’s important to talk about these tough situations with people you trust and love.