World Alzheimer’s Day - September 21
World Alzheimer’s Day, September 21st of each year, is a day on which Alzheimer’s organizations around the world concentrate their efforts on raising awareness about Alzheimer’s and dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a group of disorders that impairs mental functioning.
The theme for the 2021 campaign is Know Dementia, Know Alzheimer’s and it is all about the power of knowledge. During the campaign, we are shining a light on the warning signs of dementia and the importance of a timely diagnosis.
Every 65 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer’s disease. At current rates, experts believe the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s will quadruple to as many as 16 million by the year 2050.
Alzheimer’s disease is often called a family disease because the chronic stress of watching a loved one slowly decline affects everyone. 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the only cause of death among the top 10 in the United States that cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed. With the increases in life spans and baby boomers coming of age, support for Alzheimer’s research is more critical to our families than ever.
How do I get involved?
There are many ways to get involved with World Alzheimer’s Month, whether it be sharing messages on social media or attending events and activities put on by your local Alzheimer’s association. No action is too small.
We are calling on everyone, from individuals to large organizations, including every Alzheimer’s and dementia association globally, to support World Alzheimer’s Month by getting involved and sharing our messages on social media, alongside the campaign hashtags of #KnowDementia and #KnowAlzheimers.
Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease
What is dementia?
Dementia is a collective name for progressive degenerative brain syndromes which affect memory, thinking, behavior and emotion. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting up to 90% of people living with dementia. However, there are a large number of conditions that cause the symptoms of dementia, as a result of changes that happen in the brain and the ultimate loss of nerve cells (neurons). Other types of dementia include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and front temporal dementia (including Pick’s disease).
Warning Signs of Dementia
Every person is unique and dementia affects people differently – no two people will have symptoms that develop in exactly the same way. An individual’s personality, general health, and social situation are all important factors in determining the impact of dementia on them. Symptoms vary between Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, but there are broad similarities between them all.
The 10 most common ‘warning signs' are:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks
- Problems with language
- Disorientation to time and place
- Poor or decreased judgment
- Problems keeping track of things
- Misplacing things
- Changes in mood and behavior
- Trouble with images and spatial relationships
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
If these signs are new, they may be a sign of dementia. Dementia is not a part of normal aging. If you think that these problems are affecting your daily life or the life of someone you know, you should talk to your doctor and seek out more information.
Why should I seek a diagnosis for dementia?
Dementia is not a part of normal aging and seeking an early diagnosis can have been advantageous, allowing you to rule out other causes or medical conditions as well as helping you to understand why you are experiencing any symptoms you may have. Importantly, it will also give you access to help and support, including any treatments which may help manage some of the symptoms.
Importance of early diagnosis
If you are worried about your own memory, or that of someone close to you, it’s important to consider seeking help so that you can receive an accurate diagnosis. This process will vary from country to country – but it’s generally good to start with your doctor or general practitioner (GP).
Discussing your concerns with your doctor and having an examination can exclude other treatable conditions that can cause memory loss such as depression, urinary tract infection, vitamin deficiencies, a brain tumor or thyroid problems.
Dementia is not a normal part of aging, so getting a diagnosis can help you take control and plan ahead.
Taking the first steps to seek a diagnosis can be scary, but there are benefits to having an early diagnosis. You may have been wondering what is happening to you and have been worried and anxious about the changes you have noticed. Although being diagnosed with dementia can be an upsetting experience, it can also be a relief because knowing the causes of your problems can resolve the anxiety felt by both you and your family.
Receiving a timely diagnosis of dementia will enable you to:
- Gain access to information, resources, and support for yourself and those close to you
- Demystify and destigmatize your condition
- Maximize your quality of life
- Benefit from support and available drug and non-drug therapies that may improve your cognition
- Plan for the future
- Explain to your family, friends, and colleagues what has changed in your life and how they can help you
On a practical level there is a lot that can be done:
- Check on any state or social support that you or your family may be entitled to.
- Start making inquiries about what support services are available in your area for you and for your family.
- You may wish to review your financial situation and make decisions about legal affairs.
- If you are still at work, you could think about reducing your hours or working with your employer to make reasonable adjustments so you can continue to work.
- It is advisable to check with your insurance company to see whether you are still covered for driving.
- You may wish to participate in an early-stage support group and form new relationships with others in a similar situation to share feelings, information, and coping strategies. You can contact the Alzheimer association in your country for more information, advice, and help.
Living with dementia
If you are experiencing memory problems or are having difficulties in performing everyday tasks, then you should visit your doctor. There may be reasons, other than dementia, for the problems, and the doctor will be able to check.
If you have been diagnosed with dementia, finding this out can come as a shock, even if you have felt that something was not quite right. You may have lots of questions about what this means, what happens next with your family, how this could impact your work and your social life, and who can help you.
It is important to know that you are not alone. You may be able to get help, support, and information from:
- Alzheimer and dementia associations in your country and from other voluntary groups
- Your doctor
- Health and social workers
- Your family and friends
Caring for someone with dementia
In the past, we tended to presume that a person with dementia lost their individuality and personality during the course of their illness. As physical damage occurred to the brain, their value as a person was assumed to diminish. People with dementia were sometimes not treated as individuals in their own right.
When dementia care takes into consideration your personal history, individual traits, and characteristics, it has been shown there is a positive impact on slowing the progress of the disease.
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or for most other causes of dementia at present, the problems associated with dementia such as restlessness and depression can be treated. It may also be possible, especially in the early stages of dementia, to improve someone’s memory with medication.
It is also possible to help people with dementia and their carers in a variety of practical ways. These include ways of caring for people with dementia which build on the strengths and abilities of those affected. This ensures that people with dementia maintain a sense of well-being and individuality throughout their illness.
There is a lot of research taking place into new drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The currently available medications are not a cure. They do not slow the progression of the damage to the brain but can stabilize some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease for a limited period of time. There are two types of medication currently available, cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine.
The main treatments used are the cholinesterase inhibitors (also known as anti-cholinesterase drugs). Four have been licensed for use in many countries. These drugs work by reducing the breakdown of a chemical –acetylcholine – in the brain. Acetylcholine is a substance that occurs naturally in the brain and enables nerve cells in the brain to pass messages to each other. Research has shown that many people with Alzheimer’s disease have a reduced amount of acetylcholine in the brain, and it is thought that the loss of this chemical contributes to the memory loss of Alzheimer’s.
The cholinesterase inhibitors include donepezil (available with the brand name Aricept®, Aricet®), galantamine (Reminyl®, Razadyne®, Acumor®, Gatalin®), and rivastigmine (Exelon®). An earlier drug of this type was tacrine (Cognex®), which has mostly been superseded by the newer compounds because of its significant side effects. Side effects of these drugs may include diarrhea, nausea, muscle cramps, insomnia or vivid dreams, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
NMDA receptor antagonists
Memantine (known as Ebixa®, Axura®, or Namenda®) has been licensed in several countries for treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. It is the first drug for people in the later stages of the disease. The drug modifies the function of a receptor in the brain which is involved with the chemical transmitter glutamate, and research has suggested that too much glutamate is damaging or toxic to the nerve cell. Side effects can include dizziness, headaches, tiredness, raised blood pressure, and constipation.
A number of other treatments, including vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, have shown some promising associations, but are not proven for routine use (and high doses of vitamin E can have negative effects). Nootropics, such as Ginkgo Biloba, are available in many countries. Ginkgo seems to improve cerebral blood flow, but it has not been proven to improve memory. There is no evidence that coconut oil is beneficial for people with dementia.
Antipsychotic drugs (also known as ‘major tranquilizers’ or ‘neuroleptics’) are usually used to treat people with mental health conditions such as schizophrenia. In some people with dementia, antipsychotics can help with certain symptoms such as aggression, agitation, hallucinations, and delusions (false beliefs). However, these drugs can cause serious side effects including mobility problems and an increased risk of stroke and death, particularly when used over longer periods.
The use of antipsychotic drugs should be kept to a minimum. Non-drug approaches should be tried first, and if an antipsychotic is prescribed the prescription should be reviewed regularly.
Finding local support
Alzheimer's and dementia associations around the world exist to provide information and support to people living with dementia and carers.
Alzheimer's Disease International member associations and associations on their Membership Development Programme provide information and support and can advise you of any services available in your area, as well as answer any questions you may have.
Getting in touch with your Alzheimer association is one of the most important steps you can take!
(If no association is listed in your country, you may want to look at a neighboring country.)