Forgetfulness, confusion and loss of judgement is something everyone experiences.
When it becomes consistent and affects daily living, it is considered Alzheimer's disease, or an unnatural part of aging, according to Jane Mitchel, Vermont Alzheimer's Association development director.
One of the first components of life that will be affected by symptoms of Alzheimer's is finances, Mitchel said. Bills might not get paid or get paid twice.
"[Bankers or hairdressers] are often some of the first people who see it more than family members do," she said. "People come into those places to do transactions and they know them well enough to start seeing the changes. As family members, we see people all the time so the changes may be so gradual we don't always notice them."
The disease is a form of dementia that impacts the area of the brain associated with memory. It occurs when plaques — protein fragment deposits — and tangles — twisted fibers of a protein called "tau" — build up inside cells, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Nearly 5 million people in America are diagnosed with it. It used to be considered a part of aging, but Mitchel said it is found in younger individuals.
Signs include poor judgment and decision making, inability to manage a budget, losing track of the date or the season, difficulty having a conversation and misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps to find them. Mitchel said at first others might think that the individual struggling is having a bad day or didn't get enough sleep, however when these symptoms become consistent and more serious is when the memory loss progresses.
The difference between these situations and age-related changes is the time in which they happen. Losing things from time-to-time or forgetting a word and later remembering it is normal, Mitchel said.
The Alzheimer's Association also talks about the different stages of the disease. The early stage has a lot to do with language; remembering names, words, and forgetting material that was just read. The middle stage involves deeper memory loss of personal history and events, confusion about where they are, trouble controlling bladder and an increased risk of wandering or getting lost. Six out of 10 people with the disease will wander. The last stage is when the diagnosed individual needs full-time care and has experienced a loss in physical abilities including walking, sitting, swallowing and doing things that they used to do independently like using the bathroom. At this point they're also more vulnerable to infections such as pneumonia.
An example of an early to middle stage situation is a story Mitchel shared. A wife made dinner for her husband every night. She would cook chicken, rice and broccoli several nights in a row because that was a recipe she got accustomed to. Not only did her husband get sick of the meal, but that's when he realized something was off.
Melissa Squires from Bennington, Vt., has spent 10 to 12 years taking care of her mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago. She said her and her family knew nothing about the disease and educated themselves on their own. As a result of this struggle and years of waiting on a diagnosis, Squires is determined to inform people about how a person's loss of memory can impact others.
"There's a saying in the Alzheimer's community that if you know one person with Alzheimer's, you know one person with Alzheimer's. Everyone experiences mostly the same symptoms, but not always and they don't always experience them at the same points as others," Squires said. "Everyone progresses at different rates. Sometimes, it's a matter of a few years, other times it's many years. There's no rhyme or reason to Alzheimer's. For my mom, from roughly the time we really noticed a problem to where we're at now, which is approximately late-stage 6, has been 10 years."
Squires said her mother worked in the counseling office at a school where there were deadlines to meet and specific information that needed to be remembered. She started forgetting about those things. Then, she would lose her keys and not realize what the keys were meant for.
Numerous doctor visits with her mother's primary lead to signs of depression and stress. It wasn't until they were able to see a neurologist that the diagnosis came through. That was at age 55.
"Basically, we were told 'she has Alzheimer's, good luck,'" she said.
Squires and her family decided to put their mother in a local care facility.
"The thing with my family that made it especially difficult is that we've never placed a loved one in a home and I don't consider my mother elderly and we've always taken care of them at home," she said. "This was unchartered territory for us."
Squires said she wasn't able to get compensation for being a caregiver because the state requires the diagnosed individual to have extensive behavior incapabilities, i.e. unable to go to the bathroom or get dressed on their own. Squires' mom could still do these things on her own, but her mental capabilities were still on the decline.
The year Squires' mother was diagnosed she attended her first Walk to End Alzheimer's event and decided to get involved in the Alzheimer's Association. She is now a trained volunteer community educator.
There is no definite way to prevent Alzheimer's however maintaining a healthy heart and lifestyle can reduce the risk of increased memory loss.
Contact Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471.