More than 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease and more than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for those people living with the disease and other forms of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.” The primary cause is believed to be the development of abnormal structures in the brain called plaques and tangles, which damage and kill nerve cells in the brain. Plaques are “deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid that build up in the spaces between nerve cells” and tangles are “twisted fibers of another protein called tau that build up inside cells.” While the role that plaques and tangles play in the development of Alzheimer’s isn’t fully understood, scientists believe that these structures “play a critical role in blocking communication among nerve cells and disrupting processes that cells need to survive.”
“Many of the referrals we get are from people concerned about increased forgetfulness of names or appointments,” says Christine Wisniewski, Outreach Specialist at Door County Medical Center’s Memory Clinic. “Of course this type of ‘forgetfulness’ is often a normal part of maintaining a busy life. But if it is impacting someone’s ability to do what they want to do on a daily basis, then it’s definitely time to figure out why. Part of my work with the memory clinic is to identify the many potential causes for forgetfulness, and to decipher what can be done about it.”
However, it is also important to understand that Alzheimer’s is not the only reason someone may be experiencing memory loss. “I just encourage people not to jump to the conclusion that they have Alzheimer’s,” adds Ms. Wisniewski. “There are plenty of other causes: very often memory issues are related to vascular changes or medication side effects; sleep impairment is also a cause, as is mental illness and social isolation.”
A common misconception, with regard to prevention, is that Alzheimer’s is a disease that just happens to the elderly—that nothing can be done about it. Ms. Wisniewski comments, “Nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s is usually detected well into the disease process. It’s pretty well known that there isn’t a cure as of yet, but there are a number of opportunities, which when started early, can slow the trajectory of the disease and improve functional ability. So, it is really important to evaluate symptoms as early as possible.”
Additionally, some of the symptoms mentioned above can lead to the development of Alzheimer’s. High blood pressure, depression and stress are all considered risk factors in the development of the disease. In fact, long-term stress, at any age, can damage the portions of the brain that are responsible for long term memory storage. According to Ms. Wisniewski, “Exercise, heart-healthy diet, socialization, and good sleep have all been shown to reduce the effects chronic stress poses to our brain health.”
Support for Caregivers
Providing care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease can be one of the most difficult tasks that one can undertake, and it is important to understand that support for caregivers exists, and that it is okay to reach out when you need that support. Because there are different types of caregivers, DCMC offers different types of support, including educational workshops, support groups, and individual support. Additionally, because Ms. Wisniewski interacts with many different caregivers, she can “connect caregivers face-to-face and have them just call each other for support.” She adds that “we have a coalition of caregiver service providers here in Door County, so we can easily connect the different resources in the coalition with a specific caregiver.”
Door County Medical Center’s Memory Care Program
In its ongoing support for those concerned about memory loss, or experiencing memory loss, DCMC provides an array of services, which include:
- Free evaluation: DCMC provides a free memory screening, which is often provided in the comfort of a person’s home. “My role is to meet with anyone concerned about memory and help identify different causes,” says Ms. Wisniewski, “We spend about an hour talking about different causes. I do some simple memory tests, and then we determine what to do with that outcome. Sometimes it’s coming into our memory clinic; sometimes it’s just changing their lifestyle; sometimes it’s going back to their primary care physician.”
- Free support: In addition to caregiver support networks, DCMC offers a number of classes, workshops and events related to memory loss and memory loss support, including: Powerful Tools for Caregivers, Memory Café, Living Well with Chronic Conditions and Dementia Capable Community, among others.
- A team approach to diagnosis: Our memory clinic team, comprised of a Physician, Geriatric Nurse Practitioner, Occupational Therapist, Nurse, and Certified Care Manager, partners with the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute of UW Madison to diagnose dementia-related disorders, provide evidence-based therapies, and connect you to current research opportunities. “The goal of our Memory Care Program is to be as accessible as possible and to be as efficient as possible. In one memory clinic visit we gather a team to work with the patient, with the caregiver, and with the primary care provider to get to an accurate diagnosis. We want to empower patient and caregiver with awareness and action steps, so they can continue to make meaningful memories.”
For a more comprehensive look at Alzheimer’s disease please visit the Alzheimer’s Association website: https://www.alz.org/. For more information or DCMC’s Memory Care Program please visit our website at: http://dcmedical.org/Medical-Services/Memory-Care, or call our Memory Clinic at (920) 746-3504 to schedule an appointment. For more information on classes, workshops and events at DCMC, please click here: http://dcmedical.org/Classes,-Groups-Events.