asses nutrition, vital signs, and organ disorders, running laboratory tests to rule out other disorders, and doing an in-depth psychiatric exam to rule out other causes for dementia.
A physician will also evaluate the patient’s mental status (testing for a sense of time and place as well as the ability to remember words and to do simple calculations or drawings) and do a neurological exam for evidence of strokes, tumor, coordination and muscle tone. Many other illnesses, including depression, can resemble Alzheimer’s, as can symptoms caused by harmful drug interactions.
Early diagnosis may also lead to early treatment with some of the new drugs that have proven effective in slowing the progression of memory loss and improving the quality of life for many patients. Ask your doctor about galantamine (Razadyne), memantine (Namenda), donepezil (Aricept) and rivastigmine (Exelon). Some researchers are also investigating the potential of turmeric (a cooking ingredient often used in Indian curries) and fish oil containing omega-3 fatty acids as weapons against the plaque build-up often seen in Alzheimer’s, and one has even recommended a weekly cup of turmeric tea containing 1 gram of turmeric power, milk, cinnamon and black pepper as a possibly preventative measure. No studies to date, however, indicate that these two dietary measures help slow down Alzheimer’s once it has set in.
Research also indicates that regular exercise can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Walking a mile a day — or the equivalent of 10 city blocks — may keep the disease at bay for years, according to some researchers.
Focusing on the special needs of people with early-stage AD has also opened a world of possibilities for families. Early on, when impairment is mild, it’s best to concentrate less on incapacity and more on what people can still do. People in the early stages of the disease can take advantage of recreational, social, educational, and vocational programs. And support groups for both caregivers and care receivers go a long way toward keeping families functioning and intact, Yale observes.
“Support groups for people with the disease are just as beneficial as groups for family members. It is actually a very powerful experience: They wind up feeling less alone, getting information and emotional support, and sharing coping strategies.”
9 tips for coping
Here are the most important steps experts recommend for coping with a diagnosis of early-stage AD:
- Join a group — in person or online — for education and support.
- Help your loved one get his legal and financial affairs in order, including making a living will and granting you power of attorney for health care and for finances. Talk with them about their health care wishes while they can still understand and reason, and use these discussions to guide future decisions. Organize financial documents such as birth certificates, insurance policies, retirement accounts, and Social Security information, and keep them all in one place.
- If he or she is still driving but you have concerns, talk with their doctor, who can order a regular driving test or a specialized one for people with AD. This is especially difficult in the very early stages of the disease, when things are not black and white. If nothing else, place limits on driving distance, driving alone and at night, and so on.
- If he or she manages their own medications, count doses to see if proper amounts are being taken. A segmented pillbox will help monitor medication use. Make sure each medicine is necessary and that none are considered dangerous for persons with dementia (in particular, ask your physician about anticholinergics, insulin, or sedative-hypnotics).
- Automate as many functions as you can, such as check deposits and bill paying, but keep your loved one involved.
- Consider Meals-on-Wheels if the person with Alzheimer’s is living alone and you are concerned about adequate nutrition.
- Try to talk to your loved one about long-term care plans, such as who she wants to manage her affairs and health decisions. It is essential that she grant power of attorney for finances now, even if you don’t use it at this time, because as the disease progresses and affects her reasoning further, she may be reluctant to turn over her affairs even to a close relative.
- Talk to the person’s physician about clinical trials and discuss what range of early-stage programs are available in your area.
- Help your loved one continue pursuing friendships and interests and participating in everyday activities as much as possible, or modifying those activities as needed.
“A lot of things are positive,” Yale says, “because people in early stages still have lots of abilities. The challenge is to go on with life. Their attitude becomes, ‘Well, I’m not just going to sit around and wait to die or go to a nursing home.’ So they have to figure out what they can still do, or start doing, to make life meaningful and possible. It’s wonderful to see that happen.”