Parlor Talk: Alzheimer's Disease And Our Parents

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There’s a pinnacle moment in every man’s life when he will look to his parents and realize how much they’ve aged. In our youth, parents were looked up to as entities of power and unlimited knowledge, yet they’ve become…well, just people. It’s even harder to watch your parents deteriorate if they suffer—like 5.7 million other Americans—from Alzheimer’s. If they do have the disease, there will be moments where they'll forget how to tell time, or struggle to hold a conversation. Their reality will blend with fiction, confusion will win out over logic, and there is little you can do to help but try to sympathize.

September is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and we here at Man of the Hour understand that many of our readers might have family members who are suffering from this disease. We’d like to explore what Alzheimer’s is, how to deal with afflicted loved ones, and explore ways to lower your risk of getting this awful disorder.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports that every 65 seconds someone in America develops the disease. Alzheimer’s is on the brink of being declared a national health crisis. It’s predicted that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will directly cost American society about $1.1 trillion. In 2018 alone, it has costed $277 billion.

Currently there is no cure to Alzheimer’s Disease and there is only speculation to what causes the memory loss. The theory that is most accepted involves plaques that form in between neurons in the brain. These plaques – clinically known as amyloid plaques— grow bigger and bigger as they collect debris and waste that is deposited by surrounding cells. Soon they start to form pockets of space in the brain which leads to loss of neural connections and result in forgotten memories. In fact, Alzheimer’s can’t be fully diagnosed until after the death of a victim because the only way to completely know if a disorder is Alzheimer’s is by looking for holes in the brain.

The amyloid plaques come from a ‘glitch’ in a cutting mechanism in neural cells. There is a special protein (Amyloid-β Precursor Protein) that neurons make on the outside of their cell walls. The protein is made of a bunch of atoms and molecules that are attracted to one another, so when it’s cut, it folds up into a special formation and drifts off. In Alzheimer’s, the cutting tool the cell uses slices in the wrong place on the protein. The protein still folds up on itself, but it leaves a little space exposed that is very attractive to other molecules and atoms. The result is that debris and other trash will start ‘sticking’ to the protein, building up plaques.

Unfortunately, scientists don’t know what Amyloid-β Precursor Protein even does, so it’s hard to build clinical trials around trying to fix the problem. The best treatment for Alzheimer’s seems to be sympathy and understanding.

The truth is, when a loved one contracts this terrible disease, there is little that you can do but go along with their delusion. This might sound like the opposite of what many motifs in film and literature has taught us; however, when it comes to a disease that changes the nature of reality for those inflicted, it is the best option. Imagine what hell you’d be in if everyday someone close to you constantly said that you were wrong and confused, despite feeling at the core of your person that what you’re thinking and doing is right and true. This is why it's best to just help them as much as you can without belittling or correcting them constantly. 

Seeing your loved one slowly lose their mind is frustrating. It might seem like years of memories are drifting away and vanishing into the void; yet, the memories are still there, it’s just the circuitry that's messed up. The best way to humanely care for a confused loved one—no matter how hard it might be—is to feign a smile and politely help them through their day.

This often gets harder as the disease escalates overtime. Many victims lash out at the people they care about most. It takes an emotional toll on the victim’s children and caregivers because not only are they trying to help their loved one, but they are being berated while doing it. Part of this anger comes from the confusion that the disease brings, yet most of it comes from a molecular level. Research from LSU suggests that Alzheimer’s causes over expression of certain genes and proteins that are linked to aggression. If you have a parent that is suffering from Alzheimer’s and they are acting overly aggressive towards you, don’t take it personal. It is the disease itself that is causing these angry and sometimes violent tendencies. 

If you’re parent or loved one hasn’t been diagnosed to have Alzheimer's but you are still worried that they might be developing it, the Alzheimer’s Association offers a list of red flags to look out for in order to help families catch the disease early. Catching the disease early can’t necessarily prevent Alzheimer’s from happening, but it allows the family to plan accordingly for the future. It is much harder to devise a plan of action to help a family member, when that family member isn’t in the optimal state of mind. Catching the disease early on allows for logical and impactful planning.

There are countless studies that point fingers at probable causes for Alzheimer’s: high blood pressure, depression, air pollutants, a high salt diet. Some people have a genetic predisposition for getting Alzheimer's. Yet, research suggests that the biggest risk of contracting the disease comes from of being unhealthy. This includes not exercising enough, having to much sugar in your diet, smoking and drinking, etc. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know much, if anything, about this disease. Even the way in which Alzheimer’s is formed is debated upon. Looking back to the amyloid plaques, there are countless arguments to how these plaques are created. I gave only one of many theories on how Alzheimer’s is developed. It’s truly shocking how a disease this big is understood so little.

The best advice to anyone who is looking to prevent getting Alzheimer’s is to live healthy. We know that traits that come from unhealthy living (e.g. high blood pressure) lead to Alzheimer’s. Logically then, the best way to prevent the disease is avoid being unhealthy. Eat healthy and be conscious of what you put in your body. Exercise regularly and try to keep your body in shape. Also, and probably the most important preventable measure, keep learning. It’s important to constantly workout your mind with puzzles and knowledge. Keep your mind sharp and it won't dull as fast. 

This includes being social and engaging with other people. The more lonely a person is, the higher at risk they are of getting Alzheimer's. If you're worried about you're parent's mental well-being, it's important to visit them and try to be involved in their lives. Encourage a healthy lifestyle and be sure that they are getting the social attention that they need.

If you needed any other excuse be healthy, support Alzheimer’s Awareness month by trying to live a healthier life. If you want to help prevent Alzheimer’s even further, go check out the countless Alzheimer’s research foundations that make it their goal to learn more about this misunderstood disease.