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A progressive brain disorder, Alzheimer's disease gradually impairs memory and the ability to learn, make decisions, communicate, and carry out daily activities. The first problems that you may notice are being so forgetful that you have trouble doing your job or other daily activities. You might find yourself getting lost in familiar places or have trouble finding the right words for things.
You may also have personality and behavior changes, such as anxiety, irritability, or depression. In later stages, you may have trouble sleeping, become agitated, or have delusions or hallucinations. You'll need help taking care of yourself as the disease advances.
No one knows what causes Alzheimer's disease, but certain things may raise a person's risk of developing it-for example, being over 65 and having a family member with Alzheimer's disease. Having had a serious head injury or stroke, and having high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or high cholesterol may also increase the risk.
So far, no one has developed a reliable test to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. Your health care provider will talk with you about your health history and perform a physical exam. He may do some tests to check how well your brain and nervous system work or to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms. You may have a brain scan to look for abnormalities such as a tumor, but a brain scan can't detect Alzheimer's disease.
Your health care provider may prescribe medicine. (See How does this medicine help me?) No medicine can stop or cure Alzheimer's disease, but some can help slow down the development of symptoms. Others can help control upsetting behavior changes, such as restlessness, depression, and sleeplessness, and make you more comfortable.
Sometimes upsetting behavior such as anxiety or confusion can be triggered by a change in your routine or environment. To reduce these symptoms, simplify your home environment, tasks and routines, and rest between stimulating events. Adequate lighting can also reduce confusion.
Taking care of your physical and emotional health can improve the quality of your life for years to come. Be sure to get regular checkups, take your medicines, eat a balanced diet, avoid alcohol, exercise daily, and rest when you're tired.
You and your caregiver may want to join a support group to help you deal with your illness. The Alzheimer's Association has chapters across the country. To find the one nearest you, call 1-800-272-3900 or visit http://www.alz.org on the Internet. The Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center (1-800-438-4380 or http://www.alzheimers.nia.nih.gov) can also give you information and refer you to local resources.
This patient-education guide has been adapted for the 5th-grade level using the Flesch-Kincaid and SMOG formulas. It may be photocopied for clinical use or adapted to meet your facility's requirements. Selected references are available upon request. For more tips on writing education guides, see the first article in this series: "Writing Easy-to-Read Teaching Aids" (March 2002).
Special thanks to Tracy Kane, MEd, patient-education coordinator, Albert Einstein Health Care Network, Philadelphia, Pa.
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