Living with Alzheimer’s disease
TODAY (October 1) is International Day of Older Persons (IDOP), and one of the most common health issues that affect older persons is Alzheimer’s disease — usually referred to as simply Alzheimer’s.
Dr Bridget Okpiavbe is a consultant psychiatrist at Jamaica’s psychiatric health-care facility, Bellevue Hospital, and she shared some insights into the condition with Jamaica Observer’s Your Health Your Wealth just after World Alzhiemer’s Day, which was observed on September 21.
“Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia,” Okpiavbe shared. “Dementia is a general term used to describe brain disorders that get progressively worse over time, affecting an individual’s cognitive abilities such as memory, reasoning, ability to carry out previously learnt tasks, as well as other aspects of functioning.”
Dr Okpiavbe added that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Alzhiemer’s accounts for between 60 and 70 per cent of cases of dementia, which is the seventh-leading cause of death among older persons globally.
“One of the early signs is usually problems with memory. For example, the individual may repeatedly forget recent events or actions such as where they placed their belongings,” she said. “As the condition progresses, memory may worsen and the person may get lost in familiar places and forget familiar faces. They may have challenges communicating and difficulty carrying out their activities of daily living such as caring for their hygienic needs, paying utility bills, and doing grocery shopping.”
Okpiavbe noted, too, that the disease often causes changes in the individual’s personality, and that they may become restless and aggressive, and may experience hallucinations and delusions.
The consultant psychiatrist explained that while Alzheimer’s can occur in younger persons (early onset Alzheimer’s), a person is more at risk of developing this condition as they move into their senior years.
“Increasing age and having a family history of the condition increase the risk of Alzheimer’s,” she explained. “Research has pointed to other risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking, and a history of brain injury due to trauma.”
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is usually done after physical and psychiatric evaluation of the patient, she explained.
“If there are concerns, it is important to visit a doctor. The doctor will ask questions about the individual’s medical and behavioural history, and other pertinent details,” Okpiavbe said. “The doctor will also do a physical examination of the patient and recommend tests for possible underlying causes of the noted changes.”
She noted that brain imaging such as a CT scan or MRI may be recommended to rule out any other cause of the behavioural changes, such as a brain tumour.
And while the condition is incurable, persons with Alzhiemer’s can still live fulfilling, healthy lives with treatment and support, the doctor said in a positive tone.
“There is medication available that can be used to slow down the progression of the disease,” she said. “Medication may also be prescribed to help to manage some of the behavioural challenges, mood disturbances, and psychotic features that may occur in persons living with Alzheimer’s.”
She also encouraged persons who live with and care for persons with Alzheimer’s to be as supportive as possible in helping them to manage the condition.
“Treat them with love and respect, and ensure their environment is as safe as possible for them,” she advised. “Provide balanced, nutritious meals and adequate hydration — and ensure they do some amount of exercise daily, and stay on track with their prescribed medication and medical appointments.”
The psychiatrist underscored that a predictable routine is important for persons with Alzheimer’s.
“Ensure their daily activities are done in a scheduled, consistent manner,” she encouraged. “You may need to assist them in meeting hygienic needs and in other activities of daily living but [do all this while] ensuring they are given as much autonomy as possible. Putting visual reminders — such as calendars — around the home, may also be helpful.”