Two brains are better than one: Treating Alzheimer’s as a community

Recently, my mother set my father’s phone to unlock to the date of their wedding anniversary. She changed it so that he would be forced to remember it, which greatly amused me. However, this also got me thinking: should I be concerned about my father’s fading memory?

Where does normal forgetfulness end and cognitive decline begin? Most importantly of all, is there anything I can do to help my father avoid cognitive decline?

Alzheimer’s disease is a detrimental neurological disorder and is the most prominent form of cognitive decline in ageing individuals. Alzheimer’s is characterised by deterioration of the brain and the loss of individual function and cognitive ability. It is the most common neurodegenerative disease in the world, and one of the biggest medical and social problems of our time. In your life, you will probably interact with the disease on a personal, social and economic levels. The good news is that you can help treat the disease.

How can you help?

The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is largely unknown, and there is no cure. However, we can still prolong and improve the lives of sufferers. Treatment usually involves medications which regulate chemicals in the brain, and – importantly – assistive care to supplement declines in ability.

You don’t need to leave your job, you don’t need to become a researcher, you don’t need to open your wallet, and you don’t need to save the world. You can make a difference by recognising signs of the disease and encouraging people to see their doctor if you observe red flags of Alzheimer’s progression.

What should you look for?

Memory decline is a red flag of Alzheimer’s progression that you can recognise. By spotting potential memory decline – something as simple as an anniversary date, for example – you can encourage others to get checked and get treatment if needed. You should be conscious of recurring, everyday memory slips like forgetting names or losing things.

Recognising memory decline is key to predicting and lessening the impact of Alzheimer’s in the future. Importantly, these instances must happen regularly and hamper life beyond a reasonable level of functioning. This kind of disruption makes life significantly harder and limits an individual’s ability to live unassisted.

This infographic depicts the distinction between healthy aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. Credit: Right at Home Australia

There are three forms of memory that decline with Alzheimer’s disease development. The first is episodic memory, which is the ability to remember events or situations. The second, called visual memory, is an individual’s ability to reproduce or remember images. The last is verbal memory, which is an individual’s ability to recall and produce words. Decline in these areas of memory are indicators of Alzheimer’s disease progression. If they persist to a significant degree, individuals should seek medical advice.

A visual representation of episodic memory and it’s importance in life. Image Credit: Benjamin Arthur/NPR

The best tool you have when helping others is awareness. Research has shown that declining individuals do not recognise their loss of ability. Importantly, the further cognitive decline has set in, the more this unawareness persists. Unfortunately, it’s very common for people with Alzheimer’s disease to get lost and go missing due to this unawareness. So, be aware and encourage others to seek help if you observe significant decline. Take initiative and create a community to help support and check on one another.

Maintain an ethos of care

Individuals going through memory loss may be frustrated. Although you may want to help them as much as possible, it’s important to approach this carefully. This means encouraging, helping and caring for people, not scaring them. Instead of insisting, try to gently encourage people to see their doctor if you suspect they are declining.

Alzheimer’s is a truly horrible disease. By removing the stigma surrounding it, and learning how to identify and understand the disease as a community, we can hope to better the lives of sufferers. Currently, Alzheimer’s has no cure, but there are still things we can do about it. Together as communities, friends, and families, we can stay attentive while we care for each other.

My father doesn’t have Alzheimer’s disease and, quite frankly, I hope he never does. However, reflecting on the seemingly mundane exchange between a husband and his wife broadened my thinking about the potential decline his future may involve.

As a researcher and a son, I need to encourage him to maintain the best health he can and prevent the disease as much as possible. I hope that if my father is ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I have done everything I can to minimise its effects. Together, we can help to give our loved ones the dignity and quality of life they deserve.

If you would like information on how to deal with Alzheimer’s disease, whether it be for yourself or others, see these resources from the Alzheimer’s Association, Bright Focus Foundation and the Fisher Centre for Alzheimer’s. If you’re just generally interested in finding out more about the disease, you can do that here. If you would like to do more to help Alzheimer’s disease research, consider donating to the Australian Alzheimer’s Research Foundation or research initiatives like Dementia Australia. If you’re worried about the disease, see your local GP or psychologist for a check-up

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