06 Jan When Alzheimer’s Becomes Personal
My interest in Alzheimer’s disease began when my mother’s dementia became obvious, somewhere in her early to mid-eighties. If I had known as much then as I do now about the potential symptoms of the disease, I would have put a name to her problems sooner. I say “potential” because not everyone shows every symptom.
Most people probably learn about Alzheimer’s the way I did. They start with only a rudimentary understanding, watch a loved one’s vaguely troubling behavior, and chalk it up to old age, rather than recognize it for the early stage of a disease. Perhaps that family member is intelligent, like my mother, and able to hide developing deficiencies and compensate.
When my mother’s dress became inappropriate, it wasn’t wildly so. She had never been a great dresser, so I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t know that was a symptom. She tended to repeat herself, so when her repetitions became frequent and the content identical down to the last word, I took a while to notice—another symptom. Paranoia can be a sign of Alzheimer’s, but my mother had been somewhat paranoid her whole life. She came by the trait honestly, since her father had been a suspicious sort.
I’m sure you get the idea. People become more like what they’ve always been, their signature traits exaggerated through normal aging. At some point, though, shades of normal may darken into pathology. Because there is no definitive way to determine if a person has Alzheimer’s disease, most people refer to their loved ones as having dementia.
“Alzheimer’s” is a fearsome word that people avoid the way my parents’ generation avoided the “C” word or whispered “cancer.” “Dementia” may sound better and be less painful to utter, but dementia only means a symptom or set of symptoms. It’s not the name of an illness. Seventy to eighty percent of the time, dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
When doctors show kindness by telling you your loved one is in the early stages of dementia, that’s an easier pill to swallow than a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and, strictly speaking, there’s no way to be sure without an autopsy. So, no harm, no foul, right?
One problem with that approach is that it makes people think “dementia” is just the new word for the old-fashioned “senility.” Senility was thought to be an inevitability of aging, but we know now that’s wrong. “Senility,” “dementia,” or just “getting a little dotty” are symptoms of disease.
A second problem with mislabeling Alzheimer’s as dementia is that people remain unaware of its prevalence. It’s the sixth leading cause of death and the only one of the top ten causes that can’t be prevented, slowed or cured. If everyone knew these facts (and, unfortunately, many cases go undiagnosed and unreported), they might worry more about getting Alzheimer’s themselves and dying from it. They might open their wallets to support Alzheimer’s research. They might volunteer for studies, another form of donating. It’s expensive for research institutions to recruit subjects.
While early-onset Alzheimer’s is a serious problem, the majority of cases are late-onset, which makes it easy to put off thinking about it. Yes, age is a predisposing factor for Alzheimer’s (as it is for many diseases, such as cancer), but we shouldn’t think of it as only affecting old people. Family members, who are often the caregivers, bear the emotional pain of watching a loved one decline, as well as a huge financial burden.
If you’d like to know more about this disease, which will affect over forty percent of us by the age of eighty-five, I recommend visiting the Alzheimer’s Association website. There are ways to diminish the risk.