Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative disease of the brain characterized by a decline in cognitive function that occurs over time until a person becomes incapable of remembering family and friends, as well as how to complete the tasks of daily living. Although the causes of Alzheimer’s disease are not well documented, research suggests that this type of dementia is associated with neurological tangles and amyloid plaque buildups in the brain. Alzheimer’s disease begins mildly, with diagnosis of the disease based solely on symptoms exhibited. Medical professionals may diagnosis a person with possible Alzheimer’s disease based on a physical exam, review of the patient’s medical history, and the results of a mental status exam. Health care providers also typically try to rule out other causes of dementia by testing for health problems like brain tumor or stroke. As the disease progresses and cognitive function declines further a person might be diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease. A verifiable diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can only occur after death if the person with Alzheimer’s disease consents to an autopsy. Age is a significant predictor of people developing the disease, but Alzheimer’s disease is not considered a normal part of the aging process. In addition to memory loss and difficulty completing tasks of daily living, persons with Alzheimer’s disease often exhibit other signs of dementia, including agitation, increased aggression, or anxiety. Although these symptoms are not experienced by all persons with Alzheimer’s disease, these indications, when present, represent a challenge for familial and professional caregivers.
Scientists have determined that there are two types of Alzheimer’s disease. If symptoms occur before the age of 65, an individual is likely to have early onset Alzheimer’s disease. People with a close relative (e.g., brother, sister, or parent) with Alzheimer’s disease have increased risk of developing this form of the disease. Researchers have also established a link between having specific genes (e.g., APOE epsilon4 allele) and increased likelihood of developing early onset Alzhiemer’s disease. Late onset Alzheimer’s disease is much more common than early onset Alzheimer’s disease, occurs in people age 65 and older, and the genetic link is much less clear.
Research on Alzheimer’s disease ranges from genetic susceptibility testing to potential avenues for treatment after diagnosis and has focused on caregiving, issues of identity for the person with Alzheimer’s disease, and challenges associated with caregiving. Scholars have also examined the role of communication in the context of coping with Alzheimer’s disease, with particular attention to relational concerns associated with the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Again, difficulty communicating in the context of Alzheimer’s disease is evident for both informal caregiving done by family and friends as well as for formal care providers (e.g., nurses and care assistants). Research has suggested that the stress associated with caring for an ill family member is similar to the stress experienced by health care providers (e.g., nurses and care assistants).The nature of Alzheimer’s disease, including loss of memory and thereby loss of ability to complete tasks of everyday living, makes caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease a frustrating experience.
Research has addressed the complex nature of communicating with a person coping with Alzheimer’s disease. Some research reports that, on average, a person with Alzheimer’s will spend more years in the most severe stage of the disease than in any other stage. These reports are complicated by other research that argues that persons may exhibit symptoms of dementia earlier on but learn to hide or compensate for the symptoms, thus delaying diagnosis. However, this often means that familial caregivers, who bear the immediate responsibility for care, eventually decide that their loved one will be better cared for by professionals because of the need for more advanced care and to improve caregivers' health. Some research has suggested that family caregivers experience relief when a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease because of the uncertain nature of the symptoms of the disease. Information management is an important part of coping with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Communication researchers have also examined the role the mass media play in providing information to people about Alzheimer’s disease.
Care for Alzheimer’s patients in assisted living or nursing facilities is typically delivered by nursing staff with different levels of training. Nurses' specializations equip them with important skill sets that align with their unique responsibilities in the nursing facility. For example, certified nursing assistants (CNA) perform basic patient care under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Registered nurses and/or licensed practical nurses have more training than nursing assistants, typically administer patient’s medication, and are often responsible for patient advocacy.
The growing number of cases and the widespread influence of Alzheimer’s disease have drawn considerable attention from the medical community and social scientists. Despite advances in medication for Alzheimer’s disease (e.g., donepezil hydrochloride, or Aricept) to slow the progress of the disease and delay nursing home placement, the efficacy of the drugs over time has been questioned. In the absence of a cure, researchers suggest that it is important to examine the experiences of those working with individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease to determine the best ways of improving care. This has led communication scholars to consider the importance of social support in the context of Alzheimer’s disease. Much of this research focuses on interventions for familial caregivers. Interventions have been created to develop one-to-one peer support for caregivers. Other research has examined the potential for online support to help family members better cope with their loved one’s symptoms and behaviors associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, although few studies have examined the experience of Alzheimer’s disease from the perspective of people with the disease, research suggests that support groups for the person with dementia are essential to provide much needed emotional and informational support to aid the coping process. Practitioners and scholars alike have underscored the importance of stage-specific support groups to provide optimal assistance for both persons with Alzheimer’s disease and their family members.
Familial Roles in Health Communication
Nursing Homes, Staff Communication in
- Forecasting the Global Burden of Alzheimer’s Disease.” Alzheimer’s and Dementia, v.3/3 (2007). , et al. “
- Alzheimer’s: The Latest Assessment and Treatment Strategies. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2011. ; .
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Alzheimer’s Disease.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001767 (Accessed January 2013).
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