Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive disease of the brain that affects over 6 million people in the United States. Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that can progress over 20 years. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not fully known. Scientists conclude that it could be due to a combination of age-related changes in the brain and genetic, environmental, and/or lifestyle factors. A typical brain contains billions of neurons that are responsible for processing and transmitting information to other parts of the brain and then to our organs and muscles. AD affects the neuron’s ability to transmit information, which causes them to lose function and die. The first area in the brain to be damaged affects memory. The next area affected is responsible for language, reasoning, and social behavior. Later, more areas in the brain are damaged leaving a person unable to perform everyday activities or live independently.
Throughout the stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a person experiences an array of symptoms that affect memory, communication, and cognitive skills and interfere with activities of daily living. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a person develops memory loss, loses, or misplaces things, and has difficulty organizing thoughts. In the middle-stages of Alzheimer’s, a person begins to need more support from family or friends. In this stage, there is greater memory loss involving personal history, the day, or their location. The person may also develop personality changes, become moody, suspicious, or develop compulsive behaviors. In these stages of Alzheimer’s, a Speech-Language Pathologist has proven useful in helping the person and family learn strategies to improve memory and organization or help to find ways to simplify activities of daily living and communicate effectively with loved ones. In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, the person’s memory loss becomes much more severe with an inability to hold conversations, a lost awareness of immediate surroundings, difficulty walking, sitting, and swallowing. Swallowing problems have become a growing concern for those with Alzheimer’s, as the person often becomes susceptible to infections, primarily pneumonia. Alarmingly, pneumonia is the most common cause of death in people living with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Loved ones and care givers are often the first to identify signs of dysphagia, or swallowing disorder. Choking, coughing, throat clearing, gurgled-sounding voice, spilling food from mouth, chewing too long, and/or becoming fatigued after meals are signs of dysphagia. It is vital to notify the person’s health care provider if any of these signs are observed during or after meals. A medical speech-language pathologist can perform swallowing diagnostics to evaluate swallowing function. The ability to visualize the swallowing function is extremely important in helping to prevent aspiration pneumonia, choking, dehydration, and/or weight loss. An SLP works with the person and family to ensure safety when eating and drinking.
Unfortunately, some people with Alzheimer’s often lose interest in eating and drinking due to several reasons: difficulty swallowing/eating, poor oral hygiene, loss of appetite from medication side effects, reduced sensation of food temperature or taste, reduced awareness of hunger, or difficulty remembering to eat. There may be some environmental issues that cause the person to become more confused: loud noises, room temperatures, lighting, odors. With such difficulty involved with mealtime, a person may begin avoiding certain foods or liquids, and over time, develop weight loss or dehydration. Hospitalizations due to malnutrition, dehydration, or pneumonia cause further confusion and time away from loved ones and home. The impact of dysphagia on a person with Alzheimer’s quality of life reaches so much farther than their inability to swallow properly. A qualified speech-language pathologist is specialized in helping people with Alzheimer’s, as well as their loved ones and caregivers, improve symptoms and enhance quality of life.
Resources for dysphagia and Alzheimer's care
Managing dysphagia and Alzheimer's disease requires a team approach that includes healthcare professionals, caregivers, and support services. Some resources for dysphagia and Alzheimer's care include:
- Alzheimer's Association: A nonprofit organization that provides resources and support for Alzheimer's patients and their families.
- National Institute on Aging: A government agency that provides information and resources on aging and health.
- Speech-Language-Hearing Association: A professional organization for speech-language pathologists that provides resources and training on swallowing disorders.
- Caregiver support groups: Local support groups can provide emotional support and practical advice for caregivers of Alzheimer's patients with dysphagia.
By tapping into these resources, caregivers can access the information and support they need to manage dysphagia and Alzheimer's disease effectively.
Contact Louisiana Voice and Swallow Solutions for additional information at (225)269-9971.