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Guest Speaker Educates Senior Citizens About Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

Donna Beal of the Alzheimer’s Association says some memory loss is a normal part of aging, but dementia is not

Donna Beal, vice president of programs and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association California Central Chapter, spoke about the warning signs of the disease to a group of Santa Maria senior citizens on Thursday.
Donna Beal, vice president of programs and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association California Central Chapter, spoke about the warning signs of the disease to a group of Santa Maria senior citizens on Thursday. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

After experiencing memory problems, a 92-year-old widow who lives alone showed up Thursday to learn more about the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease. 

The elderly widow said she noticed some memory troubles while doing the daily cryptogram and forgetfulness about characters in a book she was reading. Yet, she passed her driver’s test in January without a single error. 

“It’s just I’m feeling things in this area of living that I wanted to pursue,” she said in explaining her interest in the topic.

Armed with questions, approximately two dozen residents including caregivers and and possible patients gathered at the Elwin Mussell Senior Center in Santa Maria on Thursday to learn about dementia.

Donna Beal, vice president of programs and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association California Central Chapter, provided the one-hour session at the Santa Maria facility, reminding residents that some memory loss is a normal part of aging, but that dementia is not.

"As we age, of course our brains have physical changes,” Beal said. “As we age, yes, it is harder for us to remember things sometimes. Anybody ever lost their keys?

“What we’re talking about in terms of dementia is we’re talking about memory issues that affect your daily living. That’s vastly different than, ‘What was her name again?’ And then an hour later, ‘Oh, that was it.’”

Dementia is the umbrella term to define symptoms of various diseases of which Alzheimer’s is one of 57 types.

But Alzheimer’s — named for the doctor who identified it — is the most common form of dementia, making up about 80 percent of the cases, she added. 

A progressive disease, Alzheimer’s destroys brain cells. Beyond that, the disease is different. 

“If you’ve seen one person with Alzheimer’s you’ve seen exactly that — one person — because the way the disease progresses is very unique and very different to each individual,” she added.

As she spelled out top signs, Beal frequently reminded audience members about the importance of discussing any concerns with their doctor. Signs include memory loss that disrupts daily life, challenges in planning or problem-solving, and difficulty completing familiar tasks.

For instance, there’s no concern if a person struggles balancing a checkbook as long as that person always had difficulties with the task. However, it could be a warning sign if someone who had always handled the family finances becomes stumped by the duties.

Basic forgetfulness leading to missed appointments is normal, Beal said.

Confusion with time or place also is a warning sign. But, becoming momentarily mixed up about the day of the week is a common age-related problem. What’s not common is losing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time, she added.

Difficulties with visual images and spatial relationships may be a sign if a person has difficulty reading, judging distance and determining colors. Of course, these difficulties are different from age-related eye troubles, like those that come with cataracts.

New problems with words, misplaced objects and decreased poor judgment are other signs, in addition to withdrawal from work or social activities and changes in mood and personality.

"Folks with dementia are also very good at covering, particularly if they were a very intelligent person,” Beal said.

Patients may become irritated because they don’t understand the conversation, but this also can be symptom of hearing loss, Beal said. 

In response to a query from an audience member Thursday, Beal said caregivers should not show frustration if a patient asks the same question more than once.

“You answer the question as if you’ve never heard it before,” Beal said. “And you have to answer it that way, not just with your words, but with your face, with your eyes, with your tone pitch of your voice.”

Physical, mental and emotional stress can mimic the signs of dementia, she said, adding that those symptoms can go away once the stress is gone. 

Risk factors include advanced age with one of nine people age 65 or older having Alzheimer’s while nearly one of three people age 85 or older having the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Another risk is being female likely due to the fact women live longer and have more of a brain protein called tau, according to Beal.

Beal said Alzheimer’s Association representatives regularly provide similar lectures at senior centers and service clubs on the Central Coast. 

Additionally, the Alzheimer’s Association offers education, support groups and other resources for both those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Classes include the Confident Caregiver series and the Savvy Caregiver series. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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