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The Physical Impact of Alzheimer’s Disease

With November being Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, we thought it appropriate to honor those who suffer from this debilitating disease. More than six million Americans over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s, with 73 percent being over the age of 75. This number is projected to rise to 13 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. While many of us are aware of the cognitive changes that can occur with Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia, many are not aware that it can also bring physical symptoms as well.

If you have a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s in hospice care in Alameda County and elsewhere, read on to understand the physical toll this disease can take on the body.

The Physical Toll

From mobility declines to infections, there are many ways in which Alzheimer’s disease can manifest itself physically.

1. Mobility

Dementia has more of a physical impact on people when they enter the later stages of this condition, says theĀ Alzheimer’s Society. Gradually, they will lose their ability to walk, stand, or get up from a bed or chair. Falls are also much more likely, and with those come their own sets of injuries. All of these issues can be caused by:

  • Medication
  • Other medical conditions, such as strokes
  • Vision loss
  • Balance problems 
  • Uncomfortable environments

The use of a cane, walker, or wheelchair, as well as appropriate supervision, can help with getting around and preventing falls.

2. Pressure ulcers

Many people in the later stages of Alzheimer’s tend to remain in a set position for long periods (i.e., sitting in a chair, or lying in bed). This puts them at a higher risk of developing pressure ulcers, more commonly known as bed sores. These are easily prevented early on, but if they are ignored, they can become infected and painful.

Caregivers should encourage regular activity, and also check for any rashes, skin discoloration, or pressure ulcers. There are pressure-relieving mattresses and cushions on the market you can try at the direction of a nurse or occupational therapist.

3. Infections and blood clots

With more and more of a decrease in mobility, individuals with Alzheimer’s are at a higher risk of infections and blood clots. When they are able, encourage them to move around with support, such as using a walker or engaging in chair-based exercises.

The Brain/Body Connection

The effects of the disease will differ for each person as it gets worse. The pace can be slow. Some people live up to 20 years after a diagnosis. The average life expectancy, though, is 4 to 8 years.

While the cause of Alzheimer’s isn’t known for sure, it is thought that it is caused by a buildup of proteins called amyloid and tau in the brain. They form large clumps, referred to as tangles and plaques, and can interfere with normal brain function while killing off healthy cells. The damage typically starts in the area of the brain responsible for forming memories. That’s why people in the early stages have difficulty remembering things. As it progresses, those harmful plaques and clusters start to show up in the area of the brain responsible for regulating bodily behaviors.

As Alzheimer’s worsens, everyday activities such as eating, walking, and toileting become harder. The effects will be different for everyone. With some, the pace is slow. With others, it moves a bit more quickly. The average life expectancy is four to eight years, says WebMD. When and how quickly physical symptoms will appear will vary by person. Here is a look at some of the changes your loved one may experience:

  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Shuffling gait
  • Stiff muscles
  • Difficulty standing or sitting in a chair
  • Fatigue
  • Weak muscles
  • Changes in sleeping
  • Incontinence
  • Uncontrollable twitches

How You Can Help

Here are some things family members and caregivers can do to increase their loved one’s quality of life while easing physical limitations.

  • Encourage them to exercise. Go on walks, do stretches, try yoga, and do some gardening. This will get them moving and feeling more independent.
  • Enlist the help of physical or occupational therapists to help them build strength, reinforce self-care, and reduce the risk of falls.
  • Encourage passive range of motion exercises using the arms, wrists, hands, feet, and legs to prevent painful spasms.
  • Encourage healthy eating.
  • Practice good skin care. Skin breakdown can occur when physical movement is limited. Make sure their skin remains moisturized so cuts, scrapes, dry skin, and chafing don’t occur.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

Here at Pathways Home Health and Hospice, we care for many people in our hospice program who are living with Alzheimer’s disease. We understand how stressful it can be to care for someone with dementia. Come to us for resources and respite so you can increase your understanding and get a break. Please contact us at 888-978-1306.