Tag Archives: treatments for dementia

The Caregiver’s Future

Too often, a caregiver spends each day meeting others’ needs while ignoring their own health. This practice of self-neglect brings up a deeper question: Will we get dementia too? Research on dementia prevention is growing. But many recommended prevention practices require that we dedicate at least as much attention to our own health as we do to that of others. This article is the first part in a series on dementia prevention strategies you may want to consider.

Beth Howard’s article in the February/March issue of AARP Magazine outlines ten recommended practices for helping to prevent dementia. They are drawn from the research of doctors like Gary Small at UCLA’s Longevity Center. If you are close to a dementia patient, you know the idea of longevity is a two-edged sword. Living many years may imply a long existence with low quality of life. If you could adopt ten habits that might help prevent the onset of the disease, would you be ready to pay more attention to your own health? Four suggested practices follow below. Are you already doing them — are you willing to try?

  1. Exercise! Rates of dementia are 30-40% lower among people who are physically active. Exercise appears to keep the hippocampus healthy. This is the part of the brain that governs memory formation. Researchers recommend 150 minutes of moderate weekly activity, but just 15 minutes of exercise, three times a week can help you get essential benefits for your brain. Are you giving your mind what it needs to stay ahead of the game?
  2. Weight lifting. Okay, pushing a wheelchair might count, but have you considered doing something a bit more rigorous? At the University of British Columbia, older women in a weight-training program did much better on tests of cognitive function than those who had done a different type of exercise routine. You don’t have to aim for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique. Resistance bands are cheap and hand weights are not hard to manage once you learn a routine
  3. Learning new skills. Mastering new ideas and aptitudes increases the number of brain cells you engage and builds connections across cell networks. If you relax by surfing the Internet, consider using it to learn about topics that can broaden your knowledge and show you new ways to use it. Learn to cook Thai food or knit something in a new pattern.
  4. Meditation. You may already practice some form of this, but doing it in a structured, focused way can help to reduce your stress. Stress, as we all know, can impair many aspects of our health. What is the antidote to this sinister pressure that makes us feel we’ve been pushed to the brink? Scheduled sessions of quiet “mindfulness” allow us to become more aware of our sensations, feelings, and state of mind.

Naturally, it’s much easier to tell people what they should do than to actually change our own habits. But if you have the compassion to look after someone else’s health, doesn’t your own health deserve the same consideration?

A Tale of Two Pills

People seem to have tremendous faith in pills. Pharmaceuticals help us manage many diseases, so maybe this fervent belief has some grounds. But dementia is a disease that is very resistant to intervention. Our family has experimented with two different FDA approved drugs in an effort to improve my mom’s quality of life. One had a minimal, positive effect. The other was disastrous in every way and made us change our approach to care.

Months before my mom had a real diagnosis, her family practitioner prescribed Aricept to treat her memory loss symptoms. It was not a terrible move. But it bothered us that no real study had been conducted to identify the roots of her illness. There was no PET scan, no MRI.

When Mom told us that she was taking this drug, we asked her what diagnosis she’d been given. She answered that there was no diagnosis, just memory loss. Then she laughed when she told me the drug was waking up her ovaries instead of her brain. A few months on this medicine brought modest improvement in mental function, but had zero effect on the progress of the disease.

After changing doctors, we pursued a twisting path of investigation and dashed hopes. Eventually, my mother got a more precise diagnosis of her problem. She had a rare form of dementia that is not known to respond to any course of treatment. To address her symptoms, she began taking Namenda, another Alzheimer’s drug that we were told would have a mild effect on her cognitive function.

A few weeks into the treatment, she began to have episodes of wild behavior. Mild mannered Mom was throwing her clothes around her room and hiding underwear beneath the bathroom sink. One day she removed the contents of her closet and hurled everything on the bed: dresses, blankets and tax receipts all over the room. Days later, I came home from the auto shop to find she’d shredded a pair of pants with a steak knife.

The most terrifying aspect of this incident was that I thought the disease was driving her behavior. We had one of the saddest conversations imaginable when I told her I’d have to call the doctor and he might make me put her in the hospital. She said was ready to go — not just to the hospital, she was ready to depart this earth! Together we cried a river.

Fortunately, my sister discovered that Mom’s strange behavior was a rare, but documented side effect of Namenda. If there is a moral to this story, it is that different people have different reactions to the currently available drugs. My mom is tiny and has always had difficulty adapting to normal dosage guidelines. In this case, the consequences of that tendency were horrific.

This story is here to serve as a cautionary tale. If you’ve have had better experiences with medications, I would love to hear about them. Feel free to share any good news with other readers of this page. We all need to learn as much as we can.