“Alzheimer’s is a road for which the majority of people don’t have a road map,” says Dr. Upinder Singh, a geriatrician at HCA Healthcare’s Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. “Most of the time people are seeing it for the first time. They don’t know how to handle it.”

This statement could not ring more true for caregivers who are coping with a loved one’s cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s, which affects 5.5 to 6 million people in America, is aptly called a family disease, and to most, “the long goodbye.”

Still, there should be no stigma or taboo attached to this condition, says Dr. Singh. “The person who has Alzheimer’s, it is not their fault.  They are not being mean or leaving the water running or disrobing on purpose,” he explains. “Their mind is not telling them what is right or wrong anymore, and we cannot change them.”

The Las Vegas physician says that most people spend their time trying to change the person with Alzheimer’s, rather than adjusting to the needs of their loved one suffering from the disease.

In a video that went viral earlier this month, Christine Stone sets a good example after capturing her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother’s reaction over and over again to the news that she was having a baby.

“When someone asks you the same question 20 times in a row, nonstop in an hour, it’s hard not to get frustrated, but it’s not their fault,” Christine told TODAY. “I hope this video can help people trying to make the best out of a difficult situation. There’s always something good that can come out of anything.”

Like Christine, HCA Today, with the help of Dr. Singh, hope to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s and answer questions caregivers and others might have about the disease. Here are the key takeaway messages from Dr. Singh.

What is Alzheimer’s?  

This is the most common question asked by my patients and their family members. The way I explain it is this: You can have a headache or discomfort in your head, right? The headache can be because of a migraine…because of eye problems…because of a brain tumor, but all of them can give you headache. The reasons for that headache are different. It’s the same with dementia.

With dementia you have memory problems, you’re unable to take care of yourself, you’re dependent on others, you may have some behavioral issues, but the underlying reasons could be Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, thyroid problems, depression, frontal temporal lobe dementia, etc. There are more than 10 types of dementia and one is Alzheimer’s.

Why do some people get Alzheimer’s and not others?

The biggest risk factor is old age.

  • Ten percent of people who live to be 65 years old will probably have Alzheimer’s. And there’s a 40 to 50 percent chance of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis if you live to be 85 years old. Every five years after age 65, the prevalence of dementia/Alzheimer’s doubles.

The second risk factor would be family history.

  • So, if you have a first generation relative – biological parents or siblings – with Alzheimer’s, it doubles and triples your risk of developing the disease.

Those are the two main things that we cannot control or change. We’re going to get older and our risk is going to increase. If our parents or siblings have Alzheimer’s, we cannot control that, so our risk is also increased. Also, women are more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s than men because women live longer.

There are other factors that put us at increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s, but we can modify those a little bit. Those risk factors are:

  • blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • smoking
  • eating processed food
  • certain medications like taking nighttime sleep aids every single day, and
  • untreated depression.

What happens to the brain when one has Alzheimer’s?

The brain cells talk to each other through certain chemicals. As we get older, those chemicals decrease and then the brain cells can’t talk to one another. So, the brain cells begin to shrink and die. The more the brain cells die, the more symptoms you’re going to have. The symptoms will vary from person to person depending on which area of the brain the cells die. In Alzheimer’s disease, it starts to affect the area of the brain which controls memory.

Why is Alzheimer’s referred to as “the long goodbye”?

Because you start to forget and not remember and who you were goes away slowly, and that process can take 10 to 12 years. Some people live only five years, some people 10 years, and some people 13 years, but on average, the lifespan from the time of diagnosis to the time of death is 10 to 12 years.

Why is Alzheimer’s called a family disease?

If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol that’s an individual disease, right?. But with Alzheimer’s, the whole family is affected. So if I’m forgetful, having changes in my behavior or become agitated, my spouse is affected, my kids, my office colleagues – everybody is affected. The sad thing is, the person who has Alzheimer’s, may not even know that they have it. He or she may be living in their own cocoon. It is the family which suffers the most.

What advice would you give someone caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s?

  • We have to adapt to the changing person. It is like you have a 6 month old baby. You’re not going to tell the baby to use the bathroom in the proper place. We have to anticipate when the baby has to use the bathroom or is hungry. So we have to adapt.
  • Join a support group. That is the biggest help you will receive.
  • Don’t say no if someone offers you any help. If your daughter says, “Mom, I will watch dad for one hour.” You are never ever going to say no. That one hour will help you to recharge your battery. You can be a super wife or a super daughter for one or two months, six months or one year, and after that I will have two patients, not one. Take breaks. Don’t deny help. Even if it is five minutes.

What else should we know about Alzheimer’s?

I call Alzheimer’s the “silver tsunami.” We are adding 10,000 baby boomers to the population every day. We are so ill prepared to deal with what’s coming. The death rate from cancer and heart disease is on the decline, but the death rate for Alzheimer’s is increasing. Right now, we spend $250 billion on Alzheimer’s every year in America. In another 20 years, we’ll be spending $1 trillion on Alzheimer’s and it will be the costliest disease in the United States. (It is currently the second costliest disease; the first is heart disease.) We need to pay attention to this because we have no idea what we are going to get hit by. The way we handle people with Alzheimer’s is different than you and me. We need to be more attentive and become better in anticipating their needs.

June is National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Visit here to learn more about The Longest Day and the fight to end Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer's

Dr. Upinder Singh is the associate director for the geriatrics-psychiatry unit at Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center, the only Alzheimer’s certified hospital in the state of Nevada. He also serves as the chair of the department of geriatrics.