Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month – a time to bring attention to the large number of people who have this form of dementia and to make a societal commitment to improve treatment and eventually find a cure.  Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease that kills nerve cells and tissue in the brain, affecting an individual’s ability to remember, think and plan. Ultimately, if they live long enough, those with the disease will lose their ability to communicate, recognize family and friends, and care for themselves.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are more than 5 million individuals in the United States who are living with Alzheimer’s disease and over 15 million people are acting as their caregivers.

Some people are at higher risk of having Alzheimer’s than others.  For example, as they age, individuals with Down syndrome have a greatly increased risk of developing a type of dementia that’s either the same as or similar to Alzheimer’s disease.  According to the National Down Syndrome Society, about 30% of people with Down syndrome in their 50s, and about 50% of those in their 60s, have Alzheimer’s dementia.  Help for people with Down syndrome s available from the National Down Syndrome Society, National Association for Down Syndrome, LuMind, the Global Down Syndrome Foundations, and the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s or dementia in adults with developmental disabilities can be difficult due to communication problems as well as challenges in evaluating changes in thinking and skills.

The National Institute on Aging reports that Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the third leading cause for older people.  A person with Alzheimer’s lives an average of four to eight years after diagnosis, but depending on a variety of factors, individuals with Alzheimer’s could live as long as 20 years.

The Alzheimer’s Association reminds us that: “Everyone who has a brain is at risk to develop Alzheimer’s, the only leading cause of death that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.”  So even if we currently do not know of anyone with Alzheimer’s, it is likely that someone in our circle of family or friends will eventually be touched by the disease in some manner.

According to Senior Lifestyle: “President Ronald Reagan started this observance in 1983 to help raise Alzheimer’s awareness. It is also a call to action to get people involved in both the recognition of the condition during Alzheimer Awareness Month, as well as the levels of care that might be required for someone living with Alzheimer’s.”

Not all age-related memory loss indicates the presence of Alzheimer’s. Misplacing keys, forgetting names and other everyday annoyances are common.

Here’s a look at typical age-related changes and how they relate to signs of Alzheimer’s, according to alz.org.

Typical Age-Related Changes

  • Changes in vision, such as those related to cataracts
  • Getting confused occasionally about the day of the week
  • Making errors now and then when managing finances
  • Occasionally need help to complete familiar yet complicated tasks
  • Some difficulty finding the right word
  • Temporarily forgetting names or appointments

Signs of Alzheimer’s and Dementia

  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Confusion with dates, seasons and passage of time
  • Difficulty completing daily tasks
  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing, or conversational repetition
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • Changes in personality and behavior
  • Inability to learn new things
  • Shortened attention span

There is a need for more mental health professionals who are qualified to conduct assessments of and provide effective therapy for people with developmental disabilities.  There is also a need for improvements in access to mental health services for adults with such special needs.  Promoting these improvements is part of the goals of the Mental Health Project of Spectrum Institute.  The Project is also working on two reports about the consequences of adults with developmental disabilities not receiving prompt and equal access to mental health therapy when they need it.