For many older adults, the reality of developing Alzheimer’s Disease in their lifetime is growing, which means for many grown children, so are the chances of them having to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s Disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and roughly one out of ten people over the age of 65 are diagnosed with it each year.
About five million people in the U.S. currently live with Alzheimer’s, with that number expected to rise to sixteen million people in the next 25 years. An estimated two-thirds of people with Alzheimer’s are women.
Even though more and more research is done every year to track down the causes of Alzheimer’s and work towards a cure, the conversation around Alzheimer’s is often hushed or is drowned out by the noise of so many other diseases and conditions seeking their own support for research and treatment.
When it comes to topic of anxiety, talking about Alzheimer’s is a must.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Many people understand Alzheimer’s by its most common two word definition: memory loss. In truth, however, it is a much more complicated and devastating condition than that.
Medical News Today states that, with Alzheimer’s, a rapid loss in brain cells causes basic brain functions to cease or start working incorrectly – including memory, decision-making, recognition, learning capabilities, awareness, judgement, mood regulation, and more.
The growth of amyloid plaques and tangles of the ‘tau’ protein in the brain – these two culprits starve and damage brain cells, causing them to die off or stop working. They interrupt communication between brain cells by stifling the pathways (synapses) through which cells send and receive messages as well as by damaging the structural integrity of the proteins needed to supply nutrients to cells.
These plaques and tangles progressively eliminate more and more brain cells and damage more and more intercellular circuitry. Over time, the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s may actually begin to shrink.
According to the Mayo ClinicAccording to the Mayo Clinic, the ability to retrieve memories and recognize faces goes away, and other symptoms may set in, including:
- Difficulty learning and processing information
- Social isolation
- Repeating oneself over and over
- Trouble making decisions
- Lack of judgement
- Mood swings with fear and paranoia
- Decreased awareness and hygiene
- Misplacing and losing items
- Sleeping more
- Frustration and agitation
- Trouble completing basic tasks like getting dressed
- Anxiety and depression
Anxiety and Alzheimer’s
That last symptom listed, anxiety, is more of a culmination of emotions and mental states involving the frustration, agitation, and paranoia that accompanies the disease, especially with someone in the late stages of Alzheimer’s.
It is important for older adults as well as caregivers to be aware of the potential for this degenerative condition to result in high-stress and anxiety-filled mental states.
Behavioral anxiety symptoms of Alzheimer’s are often the most challenging
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease associated with anxiety are often the most challenging and toughest for family members and caregivers to manage. A person suffering from Alzheimer’s may not just have trouble remembering something, but will physically act out over their frustrations.
Verbal and physical outbursts, pacing, sundowning, shredding paper, not being able to sleep, and even hallucinations may accompany feelings of emotional distress and paranoia a person with Alzheimer’s is feeling.
While a somewhat natural part of the disease, behavioral issues and anxiety may be exacerbated by medical and environmental factors, including:
- Changes in living and caregiving situations
- Having houseguests
- Untreated hearing or vision loss
- Indigestion or constipation
- Side effects of certain medicines
- Infections (typically in the ear, nose, respiratory or urinary tracts)
- Being asked to bathe, shower, or get dressed
Why do people with Alzheimer’s feel anxious?
Why do people with Alzheimer’s feel anxious? The way the brain works is key to answering this question. Most of the brain’s cells negatively impacted by the amyloid plaques and neurofibril tangles exist in the grey matter – the grey matter portion of the brain controls memory, emotions, muscle movement, sensory perception, decision-making, speech, and self-control.
The world makes less and less sense as your perception, judgement, and ability to learn and process critical information becomes more and more impaired. The simple appearance of an old friend whom you don’t recognize can send waves of panic and anxiety through someone with Alzheimer’s.
Not remembering the date or the day of the week, and lacking the ability to understand why you don’t remember or recognize those things induces a combative and isolating frustration and agitation that only makes the situation feel even worse.
Oftentimes people with Alzheimer’s will misperceive a question or suggestion for help as a threat and act on that fear and paranoia.
What Can Family and Caregivers Do?
The Alzheimer’s Association shares helpful tips, best practices, and ideas for family and caregivers managing behavioral symptoms as part of Alzheimer’s care for a loved one. While a full medical evaluation by a doctor is key, other simple environmental and social considerations can help including:
A scheduled framework for daily events and tasks (i.e. waking, eating, taking medicine, watching TV, exercising, etc.) can provide structure and stability to someone with difficulty remembering and processing.
A relaxed and calm living environment can stave off feelings of stress and anxiety for someone with Alzheimer’s. A little quiet and privacy can go a long way as well as soothing rituals and objects that help them feel secure.
Anxiety associated simply with losing independence and self-reliance as your loved one ages with Alzheimer’s may also be natural. Simplifying tasks with ease of use aids like a reacher grabber tool, dressing aid, or mobility device can bolster confidences.
Both low-impact exercises as well as spending time outdoors in nature have been shown to help fight anxiety as well as aid Alzheimer’s sufferers. Physical fitness may actually even stimulate growth of brain cells and synapses to lower the rate of disease progression.
Family and caregivers must be vigilant monitors of their loved ones with Alzheimer’s, keeping track of vital signs, food and beverage intake, as well as constipation, pain levels, infection, skin irritation and temperature.
A large number of older adults regularly experience what is called mild cognitive impairment (MCI), the gray area between natural cognitive decline of aging and a more impaired condition associated with dementia.
A 2014 study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that for adults with MCI who also experienced anxiety, their risk of Alzheimer’s skyrocketed. Growing evidence also links depression later in life to higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
It’s not just Alzheimer’s patients who experience the effects of anxiety, either. For many caregivers, the stress and toll of managing the care for someone with such a decimating and volatile disease can in itself lead to anxiety and other mental and physical health issues.
Recognizing the role anxiety plays in both developing, managing, and dealing with Alzheimer’s will be key to equipping those who have it and their care networks with the right tools for tackling the disease head on.
Jessica Hegg is the content manager at ViveHealth.com. Avid gym-rat and nutrition enthusiast, she’s interested in all things related to staying active and living a healthy lifestyle. Through her writing, she works to share valuable information aimed at overcoming obstacles and improving the quality of life for others.