By Michael Arangua
Updated May 09, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Alzheimer's disease is defined as, "A type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior." According to the Alzheimer's Association's 2018 facts and figures, Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and there are approximately 5.7 million Americans currently living with the disease.
Anyone who has had a loved one with Alzheimer's knows how devastating it can be. It's not easy watching someone you care about start to lose their memory and their ability to take care of themselves. While most of us have heard of Alzheimer's before, what many people don't know is how this disease kills the people that it affects.
Understanding how Alzheimer's kills are important for loved ones and caretakers of patients with this form of dementia because it can help them be prepared as the disease progresses and help patients maintain their quality of life for as long as possible. While Alzheimer's cannot be cured, early detection is important when it comes to slowing down the process and managing symptoms.
How Does Alzheimer's Kill?
Alzheimer's is a progressive, irreversible neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain gradually. Amyloid plaques and tanged fibers damage the brain, affecting different areas responsible for things like memory, language, and behavior. Eventually, as more of the brain is affected patients become unable to take care of themselves and the body starts to shut down as the brain is significantly impacted.
As for specific causes of death, that's where things get a little tricky. Alzheimer's is the underlying cause of death in older dementia patients, but it is not always the recorded cause of death.
A study by James, B.D., Leurgans, S.E., Hebert, L.E., et al. (2014) found that deaths resulting from complications from Alzheimer's are often underreported. According to researchers, "An estimated 503,400 deaths in Americans aged 75 years and older were attributable to AD dementia in 2010." This is much larger than the approximately 84,000 deaths reported on death certificates that year.
The reason for this is that Alzheimer's is a progressive and fatal disease which leaves people unable to care for themselves. The result is that things like malnutrition, pneumonia, and even swallowing disorders can be the cause of death, but these things are a consequence of the progression of Alzheimer's.
In the expert opinion of Ladislav Volicer (M.D. Ph.D.), intercurrent infections are the most common cause of death for patients with Alzheimer's. An intercurrent infection "is a disease that intervenes during another disease." The most common intercurrent infection suffered by Alzheimer's patients is pneumonia.
According to the National Institute on Aging new estimates show that, when considering underreporting, Alzheimer's could, in fact, be the third leading cause of death for the elderly (the first two being heart disease and cancer).
Caring For A Loved One With Alzheimer's
1) Establish A Routine
Establishing a simple daily routine is an essential part of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's. The idea is to make things as easy, familiar, and uncomplicated as possible to avoid frustration for the person with dementia. The reason for this is that memory loss can be scary. For Alzheimer's patients, the old and familiar can be calming and grounding whereas trying new things can be overwhelming.
In a way, creating a daily routine that is familiar can help with an Alzheimer's patient's short-term memory loss, because the routine is formed around and becomes a part of their long-term memory. If the person always woke up early and had coffee during the week and slept in on weekends, keeping that routine can help them retain a more stable sense of time.
Once you establish a routine, it's important to try to keep it the same as much as possible. Changing the routine can lead to confusion and feelings of anxiety, while also making it hard to settle back down again afterward. Of course, unexpected things do come up, so it's important to plan for when they do and try to avoid frequent, unnecessary disruptions in your loved one's daily routine.
2) Be Patient
If you have recently become a caretaker for a someone with Alzheimer's, one thing that you will notice quickly is that the task requires a lot of patience. Doing everyday things will take longer for someone with Alzheimer's, and it's important to allow them to do things at their own pace without becoming impatient.
In your day to day, this might mean scheduling extra time in-between activities and appointments, so your loved one doesn't feel too rushed. Learning to slow down can be hard at first, but it helps when you put yourself in the other person's shoes and understand how scary and different things are for them.
This can be hard when trying to get things done in public because you might be patient, but other people might not be. Since you can't look at a person and automatically tell that they have Alzheimer's, some workers and people you run into throughout the day might not understand why your loved one needs to take their time or behaves a little differently.
One solution that some people have found is the use of Alzheimer's ID cardsto discreetly let someone know that the person you are with has Alzheimer's or dementia. In these situations, making them aware and asking for a little bit of understanding and patience can go a long way.
3) Keep The Person Involved
Alzheimer's has a big effect on things like memory, behavior, and the ability to care for yourself which is why after a while patients do need full-time care. However, if caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's has become your responsibility it's important to allow them to live and make their own choices whenever possible.
How this looks depends on how far along the illness has progressed. Early on it might mean keeping an eye on your loved only interfering when they need it. Later, you may be the one structuring most of their days and taking care of their affairs, but you may let them decide things like want to wear and eat, take care of basic household chores and choose what they want to do in their free time.
The reason it's important to keep an Alzheimer's patient active and involved in their own life is that it helps them maintain their dignity and self-esteem while making their days seem as normal as possible. Being told that they can't do anything when so much seems out of their control can make an Alzheimer's patient feel helpless and disconnected.
4) Know What To Expect
One of the best things that you can do when you first take on caring for an Alzheimer's patient is a little research. It might be hard to take in all the information about the disease, like what is Alzheimer's and how does Alzheimer's kill, but it helps to be prepared. Since Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, learning what happens at each stage can get you ready for what's to come.
A few reputable websites where you can learn about Alzheimer's, find helplines, and access other great resources are the:
7) Create A Safe Environment
Another important task for caregivers is creating a safe environment for their loved ones with Alzheimer's. When it comes to memory loss and brain disorders, many accidents can happen just by having things out of place or if the person, for example, starts cooking something and forgets to turn the stove off. Things can happen fast, which is why it's good to plan for these possibilities.
Some of the ways you can create a safe environment for your loved one with Alzheimer's are:
- Avoiding clutter and things like wires, low tables, or carpeting that can cause falls
- Putting locks on things that could be dangerous, like medication or weapons
- Being conscious of fire and water safety, like making sure the water in the house can't get too hot and using appliances that shut off automatically
A Side Note: Caring For Yourself
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's can be tough on you emotionally. Remember that your self-care is important during this time. It's okay to ask for help if you need it. Online counseling services like BetterHelp are a convenient way to get the support that's affordable and doesn't require you to be away for appointments. There are also many support groups for caregiversand family of Alzheimer's patients.
If you've been wondering, "How does Alzheimer's kill?", You know now that this degenerative illness affects different parts of the brain, ultimately causing the body to shut down. However, deaths by Alzheimer's are underreported since the cause of death is often recorded as pneumonia or other related illnesses.
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's is a full-time commitment, but you don't need to take it on alone. It will be hard to watch your loved one change and lose their ability to care for themselves as they progress through the stages of this disease. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to make this time easier for you, your loved one, and anyone else involved in their care.