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Aging in Place with Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias

About 5.2 million people in the U.S. live with dementia. More than 10% of Americans over 65–and 50% of those over 85–have some form of it. One out of three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. These figures will likely continue to grow as Baby Boomers age–and create an unsettling effect on many of them who long for continued quality of life in their own homes.

Older adults who have not been formally diagnosed with dementia may fear that they have it – and those who are diagnosed are often terrified. The stigma of dementia can have a devastating effect on anyone’s quality of life, and researchers have begun to uncover links between dementia and anxiety. Both dementia and anxiety, in fact, can affect your ability to age in place.

Updated onMay. 17, 2022

It may surprise many people to know that dementia is not a normal part of aging. Dementia is a syndrome caused by a variety of brain illnesses that affect memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to perform everyday activities. It is true that memory declines in older adults, but normal memory problems should not affect everyday life. For example, misplacing a pen is very different from forgetting what a pen is used for.

young woman talking to older man with dementia

Types of Dementias

Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s, a degenerative brain disease, is the most common form of dementia. Dementia itself is not a specific disease. The word is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities that are significant enough to interfere with everyday life. While Alzheimer’s represents 60 to 80% of diagnosed cases, there are many types of dementia–and all result from physical changes in the brain.

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Dementia With Lewy Bodies

aging with dementia

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) involves abnormal microscopic deposits called Lewy bodies that damage brain cells over time. This type of progressive dementia affects thinking, reasoning, and independent function. Lewy bodies appear in other brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease dementia, although memory loss generally occurs later in DLB.

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Healthy Brain
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Mild Alzheimer’s Disease
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Severe Alzheimers Disease

Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia sometimes takes place after a stroke that has blocked blood vessels. But in all cases, blocked or reduced blood flow to the brain deprives brain cells of vital oxygen and nutrients. This leads to a decline in thinking skills. Vascular brain changes often coexist with changes linked to Alzheimer’s, DLB, and other dementia forms. Several studies have found that vascular changes and other brain abnormalities may interact in ways that increase the likelihood of dementia diagnosis. But because these changes range broadly from mild to severe, some professionals choose to this condition vascular cognitive impairment (VCI).

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease dementia is an impairment in thinking and reasoning that eventually affects many people with Parkinson’s disease. The brain changes caused by Parkinson’s disease begin in a region that plays a key role in movement. As these brain changes gradually spread, they often begin to affect mental functions like memory, judgment, and attention span. The key brain changes linked to Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s disease dementia are abnormal microscopic deposits composed chiefly of Lewy bodies, which are also found in DLB and other brain disorders.

With more than one million Americans living with Parkinson’s and the disease affecting nearly 2% of those over the age 65, researchers estimate that 50 to 80% of them will eventually show signs of Parkinson’s disease dementia over a 10-year period. Along with memory and judgment changes, this type of dementia often results in muffled speech, visual hallucinations, depression, delusion, sleep disturbances, irritability, and anxiety.

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Posterior Cortical Atrophy

Posterior cortical atrophy (PCA) refers to gradual and progressive degeneration of the brain’s cortex and posterior. But researchers do not yet know whether this a unique disease or a variant form of Alzheimer’s. Some PCA-affected brains have amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, which are similar to what happens in Alzheimer’s. Yet other PCA patients exhibit brain changes similar to DLB or CJD, which is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. PCA onset usually occurs in a patient’s 50s or 60s, 15 years before Alzheimer’s symptoms begin to show.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is the most common human form of a group of rare, fatal brain disorders known as prion diseases. CJD occurs when prion protein begins folding into an abnormal three-dimensional shape. This gradually triggers prion protein in the brain to fold into the same abnormal shape. CJD causes a type of dementia that worsens unusually fast.

Frontotemporal Dementia

aging with dementia

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), or frontotemporal degenerations, comes from progressive nerve cell loss in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes. This affects nerve cells and causes language disturbances, changes in muscle or motor functions, and affects the individual’s behavior and personality.

Lifestyle

How You Can Live Better With Alzheimer’s Or Dementia

As an aging adult recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, the most important thing you can do is to surround yourself with friends and family who will be supportive and consistent in your life. Together, educate yourselves and learn about your illness and what you can expect. Look for support groups in your area and become a part of these communities.

While there is not a way to completely alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, consistency is key to maintaining a normal level of lifestyle. Establish a daily routine and keep things simple, including regular sleep patterns, a healthy diet, regular exercise, memory engagement, and socialization.

Create a management or treatment plan, determining what works best for you to complete daily tasks. Set realistic goals and prioritize tasks as to their necessity. Some use a calendar or a to-do check off list, others use sticky notes to remind them what they have and have not done. Accepting these changes and implementing a coping strategy will put you further ahead the sooner you do so.

Lifestyle Tips

Ask your doctor to refer you to a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, such as a neurologist, psychologist, and/or geriatrician. Your local Alzheimer’s Association can provide a list of specialists in your area. Alzheimer’s Disease Centers (ADCs), funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), offer diagnosis and treatment services and are located across the country.

Huntington’s Disease

Huntington’s disease (HD) is a by-product of a single defective gene on chromosome 4—one of the 23 human chromosomes that carry a person’s entire genetic code. This progressive brain disorder is passed down from parent to child. This defective gene codes the blueprint for a protein called huntingtin. Defective huntingtin protein causes changes in the brain that cause abnormal involuntary movements, a severe decline in thinking and reasoning skills, and mood changes.

Mixed Dementia

Mixed dementia shows abnormalities associated with characteristics of more than one type of dementia. In its most common form, the abnormal protein deposits associated with Alzheimer’s disease coexist with blood vessel problems linked to vascular dementia. Alzheimer’s brain changes also often coexist with Lewy bodies. Some patients may have brain changes linked Alzheimer’s, DLB, and vascular dementia.

Autopsy studies play a key role in shedding light on mixed dementia and DLB. It is not currently possible to quantify all of a living patient’s dementia-related brain changes. But depending on the individual, symptoms may resemble or even match those of Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. Some researchers have concluded that since vascular changes are the most common coexisting brain change in mixed dementia, minimizing risk of heart or vascular diseases may also protect the brain from vascular changes associated with dementia.

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is a brain disorder in which excess cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the brain’s ventricle, causing thinking and reasoning problems, difficulty walking, and loss of bladder control. Despite the excess fluid, any cerebrospinal fluid pressure measured during a spinal tap is often normal. As brain ventricles enlarge with the excess cerebrospinal fluid, they can disrupt and damage nearby brain tissue. This results in symptoms like difficulty walking, difficulty thinking and planning, and loss of bladder control. While NPH primarily affects older adults, researchers don’t yet know how many seniors have it because it shares so many symptoms with other common brain disorders. While doctors may trace some patients’ NPH to hemorrhages or inflammation in the brain, the reason for the fluid buildup is not usually known.

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Korsakoff Syndrome

Korsakoff syndrome stems from severe deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B-1), which helps brain cells convert sugar into energy. This common memory disorder may occur when there is not enough energy to function property. Most commonly caused by alcohol abuse, Korsakoff’s is sometimes linked to poor nutrition, chronic infections, AIDS, and other conditions.

elderly woman at home being check on by caregiver

Health

Staying Healthy With Alzheimer’s Or Dementia

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle—not just physically—is a crucial part of living with any type of dementia; physical, mental, and social.

Getting regular exercise and retaining mobility releases stress, reduces possible physical maladies that might be associated with dementia, and keeps the body—and subsequently the mind—feeling alive and healthy.

An active and engaged mind helps to preserve cognitive functions. Reading, creating art, playing chess, or doing crossword puzzles—the key is to keep the mind working. An added benefit is if mind-eye-hand coordination is required. If you already play an instrument or use your hands to create (knit, woodworking, sewing), it’s important to continue doing the things you love.

Some of these activities also have the advantage of maintaining regular social contact with others. Socialization is a part of mental wellbeing from engaging in activities, to feeling a sense of belonging and reassurance, to simply having someone to talk to. Social interaction fights against any depression and anxiety that may creep in.

Finally, maintaining a healthy diet is even more important than ever when diagnosed with a dementia. A diet high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetable, while remaining low in sugar and fat, can even reduce some of the issues relations to chronic diseases. And while we know smoking and drinking are bad for our overall health, continuing these habits when diagnosed with a dementia is an automatic detriment to your health.

Treatment Tips

Evidence suggests that staying mentally active works in tandem with maintaining and preserving cognitive function. Think of it as exercise for your brain.

The Root of Alzheimer’s

Experts concur that Alzheimer’s, like other common chronic conditions, is most likely an effect of complex interactions of factors like genetics, age, lifestyle, environment, and other medical conditions. Factors that can’t be controlled–like age and genetics–can be balanced with lifestyle changes to combat factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Research in these areas suggests that the risk of Alzheimer’s can be identified and reduced. Some autopsy studies have even revealed that as many as 80% of Alzheimer’s patients also have cardiovascular disease.

Researchers do not yet know why some people develop hallmark Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles but not any of the disease’s symptoms. Hopefully, more research can clarify the link between and Alzheimer’s and vascular health.

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Genetic

Genetics can be balanced with other lifestyle improvements.

Cardiovascular Health

Nearly 80% of people with a form of Alzheimer’s had some form of cardiovascular issue.

Life Style

Factors such an enviournment, mental health, diet and sleep can contribute.

Home Modification

Home Modifications For Those Those Living With Alzheimer’s Or Dementia

Safety is first and foremost when it comes to any home modification when living with Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. Take a tour of your home with a loved one to assess potential problem areas. Keep in mind cognitive abilities, depth perception, balance, and coordination as your condition progresses.

Minimize and reduce clutter, not just knickknacks and stacks of papers, but also books, pictures, and collectibles. Busy wallpaper patterns and too many mirrors can be confusing; extra throw rugs and low furniture become tripping hazards; glass doors may open up the space and bring in more light, but stickers or bright tape need to be applied to ensure the door (and/or window) is seen as a stopping point.

Use reflector tape on stairs, floors, or walls to outline the daily path taken in the house. Handrails in hallways and stairs, and grab bars in the bathroom are helpful aid, as is improving poor lighting conditions throughout the house.

Memory aids can prolong a normal lifestyle such as labeling cupboard doors or dresser drawers, message boards posted with daily schedules, and picture aids to help use an object appropriately. Picture aids can be helpful in frequently used rooms outlining what activities take place there and what commonly used items might be found in each room.

Home Modification Tips

Inspect each room for any potential hidden dangers. Store any sharp or dangerous objects in locked cabinets. This includes kitchen tools, bathroom (razors and medication), hobby room or garage items, and household cleaners. Place an extra set of keys outside the home in case of getting locked out. Put stickers or decals on glass windows and doors.

Improving the Odds

While experts cannot pinpoint why some patients get dementia, the benefits of a heart-healthy wellness plan should not be ignored. This means regular exercise, reducing sugar and saturated fats. and filling your diet with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Many studies suggest that keeping your brain and social life active may reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Social and mental stimulation is thought to strengthen connections between the brain’s nerve cells in the brain, as do consistent sleep patterns.

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Still other studies show a strong link between Alzheimer’s and significant head trauma, particularly when the patient has lost consciousness. Wearing helmets and seat belts when appropriate, as well as making changes on your property to reduce the risk of falls, are easy steps to manage risk.

While you can’t absolutely know your degree of risk for Alzheimer’s or other dementias, anything you do to promote both brain health and overall health go a long way in improving your quality of life and maintaining normalcy. You may not be able to cure the problem, but arming yourself with information can be the best way of living the life you want in the home where you want to stay.

Home Health Alzheimers

Technology

Technology For Alzheimer’s Or Dementia Patients

From oversized clock and calendars to medication aids and medical alert systems, there are plenty of various technologies available to fit the needs of someone with a dementia.

Medical alert systems offer help at the touch of button in the case of emergency. Through the use of a wearable device, either a pendant or a bracelet, the user can connect with and interact with a call center if they encounter trouble. Some medical alert systems can also detect falls in the home and serve as GPS location and tracking devices. However, these systems are only helpful if the user wears the device.

There are items to notify a family member or caregiver where their loved one is. Seat cushions, floors mats, and bed pads that are wired if you get up or leave a room. Video monitors, some of which are motion activated, and motion sensor alarms can also keep track of the whereabouts and activity of a loved one.

Pre-recorded reminder messages can serve as a reminder to take medication, prepare for an outing, get ready for bed, or even lock the door if they are heading out. Medication management technology can announce when it’s time to take a medication, and/or lock and unlock dispensers for the medication required. And because it’s easy to get confused with time, there are clocks designed to ease the anxiety associated with a diagnosis. They can tell the time of day, the actual day of the week, and/or the current date. Such clocks are helpful when trying to establish a regular routine.

Technology Resources

Our online community to connect with other individuals living with early-stage Alzheimer’s. You can share questions, experiences and practical tips via message boards or create private groups organized around specific topics.