Alzheimer’s Disease: Understanding, Managing, and Coping with Memory Loss

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. It is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. In Alzheimer’s disease, there is a gradual loss of brain cells, leading to a decline in cognitive function and a decline in the ability to perform daily activities. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not fully understood, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. There are currently no cures for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are treatments that can help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. By understanding what people living with dementia experience in their day-to-day-lives – their struggles, their successes and their hopes – together we can raise awareness of dementia throughout Canada. See more about awareness https://alzheimer.ca/en/take-action/change-minds/alzheimers-awareness-month

Navigating Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s is a very difficult disease to navigate and it seems to be afflicting more and more people as we live longer in this current day of medical advancements. It can have a devastating effect on the person, as well as family members and caregivers that are supporting the person. Early intervention is key if possible. Unfortunately, one of the early components of Alzheimer’s is often denial about what is happening and working hard to maintain the status quo. Sometimes it takes family members, or other members of the health care team, like your physiotherapist, to help guide you or your caregiver to getting assessed for this. It is important to talk to your doctor about the changes you are noticing yourself or with your loved one, so that they can provide medical testing and referral to a gerontologist or other medical specialist to help you with diagnosis and possible medical interventions that may help slow the progress of the disease in some cases. Take your caregiver to your medical appointments to ensure that you can remember what the doctor said and be able to implement the suggested changes recommended by the doctor.

Tips for Managing Memory Loss and Alzheimer’s Disease

If you are concerned about memory loss or poor brain functioning, have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or are caring for someone with memory loss or Alzheimer’s, here are a few tips to help. These tips can help the person with Alzheimer’s possible, but also are important for the caregiver.

Calm your mind

With the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other memory loss changes, it can be very distressing to notice changes in your memory or loss of ability to perform day to day executive functioning. It can also be very distressing for the person caring for the person with memory loss. As a result, often your stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes heightened – increased activity – which can lead to holding your breath and generally bracing yourself.

When the SNS is heightened, usually this means that your muscles in your body are more tense at rest and that you are often breathing shallowly. Sometimes people experience pain with this, and other times tightness and lack or ability to do things due to stiffness and weakness or fear of injury.

One of the things that you can do is work on meditation type activities which will help to calm the Sympathetic Nervous System and help to increase activity in the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is more for calming the body and also aids digestion.  One of the most common techniques that we can use to assist reducing the SNS activity involves breathing techniques. 

Physiotherapists have specialized training the musculoskeletal system (bones and joints), but we also work together with how the nervous system regulates our bodies.  We can assess whether you are breathing shallowly, or braced in your breath and help you with specific strategies to relax your breathing, which will help lessen SNS activity and help you calm your body, and ultimately usually also helps to calm your emotions and stress response.  This sort of work – meditation and breathing – can help you to calm you mind and emotions and hopefully feel more able to work towards other things in life with more ease.

Exercise  

Research shows that when we exercise, it provides input to the “happy” hormones in the brain and helps to calm your nervous system.   Exercise also helps to keep you moving better and feeling better about yourself.  Physiotherapists have specialized training to be able to assess you and then help you move better and feel better and it could be a great help to you to have a physical assessment to determine what sort of exercise is safe for you and how to get started towards moving better and ultimately helping the brain health along with it. Exercise can also help to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety which often go hand in hand with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia changes in general. 

Take some “ME” time 

Please remember to schedule in time to relax, read if you are still able to, listen to a podcast, or do something that you enjoy and check in with how you are doing.  In our busy society, we often get caught up trying to accomplish so many things in a day, and are always “doing” that we sometimes forget to just “be”.  Electronic devices don’t always help this as it seems that we are always available to people online or through phone.  Try to take some non-electronic time regularly to refresh your energy and brain. 

Eat well 

Diet is very important in keeping your body and brain healthy.  There are many different ideas here on what is needed, but generally, we should focus on having a balanced diet of good fats, protein and fresh vegetables and fruit to help keep you healthy.  Some people struggle with food sensitivities and there is some conjecture out there that foods with gluten for example can negatively affect brain health. There is emerging research on the connection with the gut and the brain, meaning that what we eat can accept our brain function – so we” are what we eat” as the old says goes.  Please talk to a dietician or functional nutritionist for more information on this topic and to help guide your specific choices based upon your medical information specifically. 

Supplements – Other Health professionals may recommend vitamin supplements . There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and there are no supplements that have been proven to definitively cure or prevent the disease. However, some research suggests that certain supplements may help to manage symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. 

  1. Vitamin E: Some studies have suggested that high doses of vitamin E may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.
  2. Ginkgo biloba: This herb has been traditionally used to improve memory and cognitive function. Some studies have suggested that ginkgo biloba may help to improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but more research is needed to confirm these findings.
  3. Omega-3 fatty acids: Some studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may help to reduce inflammation in the brain and improve cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but more research is needed.
  4. Acetyl-L-carnitine: Some studies suggest that this supplement might help to improve memory and cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but more research is needed to confirm these findings.
  5. It’s important to note that supplements may interact with other medications, or may not be appropriate for everyone, so it’s always best to consult with a healthcare provider before taking any supplements.

Breathing exercises, or other PNS activating activities can assist digestion and help aid the function of the gut, which also should aid overall brain function.

Rest

Sleep – this is the time where our brain restores and refreshes our cells and it is important that we get enough quality sleep, including deep sleep, each night.  The amount of hours of sleep per person can vary, but it is recommended that a person sleeps a minimum of 7-9 hours each night. If you are having difficulty with sleep, you can talk to you doctor about this. Sleep patterns can be disrupted as we age, and it is important to try and restore the quality sleep as able.  You can also talk to your physiotherapist about sleep challenges and we can suggest some tools for aiding sleep, such as sleep hygiene/routine at night and reducing electronic devices use closer to bedtime, as well as breathing and meditation techniques that might help you to relax your SNS so that you can get to sleep better and hopefully stay asleep longer.  

Journal

More and more information is coming out about the positive effects from using a journal to express your thoughts and emotions, fears and happiness.  This expression of emotion and release of our feelings can help lessen stress and lessen the feelings of depression and despair that can often accompany Alzheimer’s disease Itself and the severe stress caused by caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. 

Socialization

It is important for our health and our brain to continue to have social connection with friends and family.  It is integral to our wellbeing. One of the things that happens with Alzheimer’s disease typically is that the person and the spouse/family/caregiver become more isolated from society And even other family members since the person with Alzheimer’s begins to have more difficulty continuing with these connections. For example, the person with Alzheimer’s might belong to a book club with friends, but then has challenges with reading and with retaining information, so ends up dropping out of book club. 

Another example is If you have friends for dinner, it can becomes hard to have meaningful conversations with the person with Alzheimer’s disease due to memory and associated challenges and behaviours, and so often friendships drop off as you being to see people less. Generally, it seems It is easier for people dealing with Alzheimer’s disease to pull away from these activities than have to deal with the inability to participate as you once did.

Sometimes this social “pulling away” it is not even something that you are aware of as it happens gradually over time and we can get caught up in caring for the person’s needs.  It is then that we need to be reminded to try and maintain as much social connection as possible, especially for the caregiver.  The caregiver could consider getting some respite assistance, where someone comes in to help care for the person with Alzheimer’s, so that they can go and do something that they enjoy or can get some exercise with friends to help maintain their own strength, energy, and emotional wellbeing and then be refreshed to come back to caring for their loved one.  

Summary of possible medical testing for Alzheimer’s

Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease typically involves a combination of techniques, including: 

  1. Medical history and physical examination: The doctor will take a detailed medical history, including information about symptoms, as well as perform a physical examination to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms.
  2. Neurological examination: The doctor will perform a series of tests to assess cognitive function, including memory, language, attention, and problem-solving skills.
  3. Laboratory tests: Blood tests and other laboratory tests may be done to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms, such as thyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies.
  4. Brain imaging: Brain imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans, may be used to look for structural changes in the brain that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
  5. Neuropsychological testing: A neuropsychologist will conduct specialized testing to evaluate cognitive function.
  6. It’s important to note that a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can only be made by a neuropathologist after a brain autopsy. However, a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s disease can be made with a high degree of accuracy by a specialist (such as a geriatrician, neurologist or geriatric psychiatrist) based on the above described testing.
  7. It is important to note that it is not possible to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease with a single test, but instead a combination of tests and evaluations are used to make a diagnosis.

For more information, please reach out to the Alzheimer’s society at Alzheimer.ca