As the number of Americans living with Alzheimer's disease continues to rise, the role of caregivers has become increasingly important, a dementia expert notes.
"A good caretaker who understands the disease, its symptoms and progression is crucial to the overall well-being of people with Alzheimer's," Dr. Fred Kobylarz said in a news release from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He's a geriatrician and dementia expert at the school.
Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, affects about 5.5 million people in the United States -- a number that is expected to more than triple in the next three decades, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Nearly a third of people aged 85 and older are living with the disease.
"Alzheimer's has become pervasive in the United States, and it affects people in all walks of life," Kobylarz said. "It is a national problem that needs action and attention."
Memory loss is usually the first sign of the disease, "later followed by neurological changes that can include changes in language, personality, driving issues and decreased executive function," Kobylarz said.
Detecting Alzheimer's, though, "can be tricky," he said.
For instance, people early on might show signs of memory loss that don't affect their ability to function day to day. "Some memory loss can also be a sign of the normal aging process," Kobylarz explained.
"Families should look out for memory impairment and trouble managing aspects of their daily lives -- like paying bills or taking their medication," he said.
It's also important to know your family history and share that with your doctors, Kobylarz said. Though older age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer's, he explained, genetics and family history also play a role.
If you notice worrisome changes in an older family member, talk with a doctor, he said.
Alzheimer's cannot yet be cured, but medications and lifestyle changes can often help slow the progression of the disease, Kobylarz said. This requires the doctor, patient and family to work together to develop a plan to maintain cognitive function, he added.
"The future for people with Alzheimer's is promising," Kobylarz said. "For now, I do my best to educate patients and their caregivers on steps to improve overall well-being and disease progression."
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has information on Alzheimer's disease.
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