World Alzheimer’s Day – September 21st
Most of us will have to face the effects of Alzheimer’s disease at some point in our lives, whether that be in a parent, grandparent, friend or spouse. In the US alone, 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s. This disease slowly and gradually reduces a person’s memory and cognition until they are no longer able to carry out the basic functions of living. Facing it can be a scary prospect, but taking some of the mystery away can be a good place to start.
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can be detected at different stages. Patients go in for testing for different reasons, either because they were showing signs of cognitive decline or because they have a family history of the disease and wanted to get checked. “Some patients come in at the very early stages of possible decline,” says Dr. Andrew Schmitt, Director of Neuropsychology at UT Health North Campus Tyler. “This stage is sometimes referred to as “mild cognitive impairment.” If a patient comes in during this stage, there are a number of available options such as medication treatment trials, genetic testing for Alzheimer’s risk factors and changes in lifestyle, such as diet and exercise.” Even though there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are many promising avenues of research that can be beneficial.
If the disease is at a middle or late stage, the individual can have trouble functioning on their own. Often, they will need assistance from a caregiver. They might become confused easily, forgetting their name, tasks or address. There can also be a change in behavior and personality. At a very late stage, individuals will lose the ability to communicate and respond to their environment.
Kinds of Tests
There are a series of tests to determine the stage and the progression of the disease. Exams can include a physical examination by a physician, bloodwork analysis, review of medical history and review of heart problems. If the results of a basic memory assessment are concerning, a patient may be referred to a neuropsychologist for more a detailed functional assessment.
“The neuropsychologist’s job is to perform a detailed analysis of the patient’s abilities in different cognitive domains,” says Dr. Schmitt. “Neuropsychological tests are carefully designed to measure a person’s abilities in various cognitive domains, especially attention and memory. The patients work one-on-one with the neuropsychologist. There are paper-pencil tasks, visual puzzles, computerized tests, and verbal tasks. Some tests involve timed performance and some require deep thinking. Many patients enjoy the testing, even though some might struggle with certain aspects of the testing.” After testing, a neuropsychologist might then set up referrals to agencies and social workers. However, some patients may choose to come back in and check on the rate of the disease progression. Additionally, Dr. Schmitt is always available for a consultation.
Treatment and Research
Currently there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, Dr. Schmitt is hopeful about the recent course of research. “The medication models currently under investigation are focusing on different aspects of halting, or even reversing, the process that causes the neuronal damage. For example, the beta amyloid plaques that are deposited between neuronal cells are now being targeted by these newer medication trials,” relays Dr. Schmitt. There is also research being conducted that aims to understand the early biomarkers for the disease. This would mean people at greater risk could be identified at an earlier stage.
Another important aspect of Alzheimer’s research is understanding environmental factors. Factors such as diet, exercise and mental stimulation are all possible considerations on the impact of this disease on an individual.
How to Help Yourself
Researchers are still not clear what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but it is believed that it is linked to a combination of factors. These factors could include age, genes, lifestyle, other medical conditions and environment. Some of these, like age and genes, cannot be altered, but there are still a few ways to reduce the impact of other possible risk factors.
Staying heart healthy is a good way to keep the brain healthy. This includes keeping a daily exercise routine and eating foods that will be good for your cardiovascular health. (This means cutting back on sugar and saturated fat. Focus on getting plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.) Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, benefitting brain cells. In addition to diet and exercise, mental stimulation is important to maintaining brain health. Stay social, connecting with friends and family often, and keep your mind busy with reading and puzzles.
Getting the Right Support
If you are worried about cognitive issues or you’ve already been diagnosed, it’s important to face the disease process. Avoiding the reality and not taking advantage of helpful resources will only make the process more difficult. “Getting support from families and friends is paramount,” advises Dr. Schmitt. “It is usually helpful to seek advice and assistance from local care-groups such as the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County. They provide frequent workshops, care-groups and counseling for family members of patients with memory disorders.” Even if you have dementia, you still have time to do the things you love with your family and friends.
Connect with the Community
There are many resources for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and for their families. There are online support groups and local organizations, such as the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County. These organizations provide information and support in the form fun events and ways to reach out to others. You can also donate money to research or sign up for a “Walk to End Alzheimer’s.”
Alzheimer’s disease can be a daunting prospect, but together we can support each other and work toward finding a cure.
Andrew L. Schmitt, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, who practices at UT Health North Campus Tyler. “I have a passion for seeing people lead productive and happy lives. I hope the work that I do can help patients and their families better cope with illness and improve the quality of their lives.”
Although Dr. Schmitt sees patients from various backgrounds, his greatest area of expertise and research is in the diagnosis and study of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. He also has substantial experience with the assessment of traumatic brain injury, stroke, ADHD and depression.
His personal interests include playing and teaching competitive chess, barbecuing, cooking and spending time with his family and friends.