Tag Archives: alzheimer’s studies

Mood Lasts Beyond Memory for Alzheimer’s Patients

The fact that forgotten events can continue to exert a profound influence on a patient’s emotional life highlights the need for caregivers to avoid causing negative feelings and to try to induce positive feelings.

This quote comes from a University of Iowa study on mood retention among Alzheimer’s patients, results I heard discussed a few days ago on NPR. The interviewer was thrilled with the information. And I know I should be too. After all, Ralph is still in a great mood ten days after we hosted the wedding because he knows he had a wonderful time even if  he can’t remember almost any of the details.

But what I actually thought as I listened to the earnestly enthusiastic young researcher was, “Oh great, now I have another reason to feel guilty.”

What I heard her telling me was that If feelings linger after the memory fades, I am “causing negative feelings” in Ralph more often than I want to admit. I see the way his face collapses when I am short with him after he asks me where I am going for the fifth time in half an hour. Or when I get annoyed that he has forgotten to take his pills or has not given me an important message from the electrician or has gone to bed before eight after spending the entire afternoon asleep on the couch. Less than a minute ago, he interrupted me as I was typing here at my desk with another question I had just answered, and I shouted down the stairs Not Now I’m Busy in a less than kind voice. Since Ralph’s diagnosis of MCI over a year ago, I have told myself not to feel bad about outbursts of impatience because he won’t remember. Evidently I was wrong: an essential non-cognitive part of him will remember.

Coincidentally, the blogger of “Not My Original Plan” –whom  I much admire for her realistic and committed optimism–writes in her most recent post about enjoying her mother’s lingering joy after the actual memory of an experience they have shared together fades.  I know I should follow her example and be glad that in some essential way his loss of memory has not robbed Ralph of his emotional life. And most of me is glad.

But to be honest, another considerable part of me liked thinking I had an escape hatch from responsibility:  I could let down my guard and be selfish or mean or emotionally lazy without it counting as long as Ralph wouldn’t remember.  That escape hatch is closed from now on, and I can’t help letting out a short sigh of “caregiver” fatigue.

What’s Up with Namenda?

Medicine is not my forte. Ralph was the one who always followed a strict regimen of vitamins and minerals. I can’t tell you how many bottles of women’s vitamins ended up half-used before I threw them out. I can’t even remember to take my calcium chews, even though they are chocolate flavored (well, a wan shadow of chocolate flavor). So I am not the best person to be in charge of someone else taking medicine. But I am now the filler of Ralph’s seven-day prescription reminder box.

Sixteen months ago, when Ralph was first diagnosed, our doctor prescribed donepezil, the generic name for the drug many newly diagnosed MCI or early Alzheimer’s patients take—the most common brand name is Aricep. No one claims donepezil cures Alzheimer’s, and the many studies on its efficacy seem inconclusive about whether it actually slows down the symptoms. But as soon as Ralph started on the drug, his symptoms stopped getting worse. And although this is not always the case for donepezil, he had no side effects.

About eight months ago, we added Namenda to Ralph’s routine. Namenda, which is the brand name for the generic memantine, complicated our schedule because it had to be taken twice a day. That second pill was hard to remember, for Ralph and me both. But again there were no side effects, and as much as he says he hates taking pills, Ralph felt the combination of Namenda, donepezil and escitalopram, brand name Lexipro—which his psychiatrist prescribed to help Ralph’s mood—was beneficial

About six months ago, a new once-a-day version of Namenda suddenly became available. Although our doctor said the drug company was manipulating the market because Namenda’s patent was running out, we were thrilled. One set of pills a day made life so much easier. I still was the one who filled the pill boxes, but Ralph became a champ at remembering to take his pills, and I got out of the habit of reminding him.

Until last week.

When I contacted our on-line pharmacy for refills, I was told there was a manufacturer’s supply problem. No renewal of once-a-day Namenda for at least a month or two, maybe longer. I called the local chain drug store; Ralph will not let me order his drugs from our independent pharmacy where the pharmacist knows him. No once-a-day Namenda was available there either but they had plenty of twice-a-day. I called the doctor’s office; the nurse said other patients had been calling with the same problem and she would check into the situation. Two days later she called back and said to go back to twice-a-day.

Bummer.

I ordered the pills, filled the boxes and told Ralph we were back to twice a day. That was Wednesday. Thursday he took all three A.M. pills but forgot the P.M.. Namenda and was asleep by the time I noticed. Yesterday, I had to leave the house early and he forgot his A.M. doses, but did take his P.M. Namenda. Today I handed him his A.M. pills with his morning coffee. And as soon as I post here, I am going downstairs to remind him, it’s time for the P.M. Namenda.

We’ll get the new/old routine down eventually but I would love to know what’s behind the sudden shortage and why we’re being held hostage by the pharmaceuticals.

Is MCI Dementia?

Several weeks ago Ralph and I sat down with a bowl of popcorn and watched the program “Alzheimer’s – Hope for Tomorrow – Help for Today” on our local public television station. Ralph’s doctor was featured as well as a member of Ralph’s support group.

Despite the optimistic title and some upbeat patient interviews, the program didn’t sugarcoat or patronize those of us in the trenches. After all, for all the studies and research and media attention, the known facts are pretty clear-cut: There’s no sure way to predict when/if MCI and early Alzheimer’s will develop into full-on Alzheimer’s; and there’s no cure despite the drugs and lifestyle changes that slow down the progression for some but not all patients.

It was like watching a car wreck; only the wreck involved my car. I couldn’t tear myself away.

Ralph watched all the way through too, but when I asked him what he thought he said he hated the program. His exact words were “It’s all crap.”

He didn’t want to identify with the people he saw on the screen, even those who seemed to me even less impaired than he is.

What probably put him off most—what frankly made me squirm sitting beside him—was the constant referral to both Alzheimer’s and MCI as dementia.

I have been squirming ever since. DEMENTIA. That’s how to describe Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre, the crazy woman in the attic, or my 96-year-old mother in her worst moments. Not Ralph, my careful, rational husband, a fact man who loves historic detail and likes nothing better than to analyze current events. It has never occurred to me to use that scary word dementia for Ralph’s condition…or only in anger and before his MCI diagnosis (when I so easily tossed around damning words that choke in my throat now).

It has taken weeks to steel myself to look into the definition of dementia in terms of MCI. The U.S. National Library of Medicine site lays out the parameters very clearly:

“Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the stage between normal forgetfulness due to aging and the development of dementia. People with MCI have mild problems with thinking and memory that do not interfere with daily activities. They are often aware of the forgetfulness. Not everyone with MCI develops dementia.

Symptoms of MCI include:

  • Difficulty doing more than one task at a time
  • Difficulty solving problems or making decisions
  • Forgetting recent events or conversations
  • Taking longer to do more difficult mental activities

Early symptoms of dementia can include:

  • Difficulty with tasks that take some thought, but that used to come easily, such as balancing a checkbook, playing games (such as bridge), and learning new information or routines
  • Getting lost on familiar routes
  • Language problems, such as trouble with the names of familiar objects
  • Losing interest in things previously enjoyed, flat mood
  • Misplacing items
  • Personality changes and loss of social skills, which can lead to inappropriate behaviors”

No surprise that Ralph hits the mark for all four symptoms of MCI.

As for symptoms of dementia, he’s a mixed bag. Fortunately, he does not exhibit any symptoms of moderate dementia so I didn’t reprint them. Comparing him to the early symptoms list I can say confidently that he has no language problems, at least less than I do, and that he doesn’t misplace items any more than he always has, although finding his razor in his sock drawer this morning was perplexing.

He can still drive his tractor and do carpentry repairs. But there’s no getting around that he can no longer do mental tasks that used to come easily–forget balancing a checkbook, he struggles following a movie. He is beginning to forget how to get to once familiar destinations, so I am going with him to get his teeth cleaned next week. And his personality has definitely changed. My “to the moon Alice” Ralph has transformed in an easygoing, appreciative, sentimental, even docile Ralph who is also withdrawn and fearful of anything outside his daily routine.

Although there’s no way to avoid checking Ralph’s behavior against the definition of dementia from now on, I am not ready to add dementia to the vocabulary of my marriage (a resistance I’ll explore in a future blog). And I don’t believe I have to.

Not yet.

If I Could Stick that MCI Diagnosis Back in Pandora’s Box…

 

I just read a couple of study summaries showing that people often have “accelerated cognitive loss” for up to four years, even six years before diagnosis.

Ralph and I were aware of problems a year or so before the diagnosis, but four years or longer? I have to ask myself, why didn’t I notice sooner?

Well, if I am brutally honest, I did notice some changes, but they seemed to be improving our marriage so I didn’t want to look too closely or rock the boat.

God knows, I had already spent plenty of years obsessively analyzing what I perceived as his shortcomings and my weaknesses in our long up-and-down relationship—a marriage between strong personalities who loved each other but were frequently at odds. But about five years ago, with both kids out of the house, we seemed to have entered a second honeymoon stage.

If he forgot what I told him more often than usual, I was used to him not paying attention. After thirty years together, I was used to hearing his stories repeated and repeated; so what if he repeated them twice in a day instead of twice a week. And I was used to our screaming arguments—we both had tempers—but here where the improvement had come: he no longer held onto his anger. If we argued in the evening, he woke up the next morning with no memory that there’d been a scene let alone any lingering hostility. He was more affectionate and more relaxed. (Actually he still is.)

So if he was forgetful or unfocused that was a small price to pay. I did silently question some of the business decisions he was making, but I chose to ignore the small voice in my head warning me that he was being sloppy or inattentive, making faulty investments and letting our family business slide. It was easier to leave business decisions to him. I didn’t want the responsibility. Pure selfishness. Of course ultimately, I ended up stepping in and picking up the slack in a hurry.

What secret fears and anxieties pushed him during those months and years? How much was he aware he was missing or losing? How much was he covering up for what he couldn’t quite grasp any more?

And if we knew it was MCI earlier, would our lives have been better or worse? I thought I was actually relieved to know when we first got the diagnosis, but Ralph was only more frightened.

Perhaps conventional wisdom is right that knowledge and acceptance are the more mature route, not necessarily to bliss but to a quiet appreciation of each day. But sometimes I remember that oddly happy time and wish I’d put off learning the truth; why enter the gray uncertainty we now inhabit any sooner than absolutely necessary?

What If My Memory Goes Next?

I can believe I haven’t thought of this before (i.e. remembered) while trying to empathize with Ralph’s cognitive impairment, but  I have actually experienced a similar discombobulating state of memory loss myself: a short spell of amnesia years ago after falling 10 feet down from a filled hay wagon:

I was helping Ralph gather up bales in the field of our farm. The last thing I remember is how sticky, itchy miserable I was standing at the very top of five layers of hay bales  in the old Chevy truck-bed as I declared to Ralph that I would never help him bring in the hay again.

Then I was lying on the ground, or so I’ve been told.

For the next few days I continually asked Ralph to remind me the basic facts about our lives. I don’t know what the exact questions were, but I do remember continual foggy confusion and jagged moments of panic, then the enormous relief as facts returned to my consciousness.

Now Ralph lives with what is probably a more difficult mix of confusion and panic on a regular basis and there’s no relief in sight. While  his daily menu of donezepil, namenda and lexapro keeps him stable for the time being, he knows damn well there’s  no real cure, that his lost facts are not going to miraculously return.

Meanwhile, my memory in most areas–not counting names, numbers and my car keys–is  relatively sharp.

What makes me nervous is an article I read  that people with a history of concussions are prone to memory loss as they age.  I have also read, somewhere else, the worrying possibility that Alzheimer’s spouses are more likely to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s themselves.

I would offer a link to those articles here, if I could only remember where I found them.

I Meet Another MCI Spouse

We are a little early for Ralph’s third of five sessions in an Emory University study on visual aids on whether certain visual clues will improve memory retention for those with MCI/Early Alzheimer’s. (There are so many studies out there right now and they all need volunteer subjects. But not every patient qualifies to be in a study. MRIs are usually required and there are often other restrictions as well but it is worth going to the Alzheimer’s Association website to check out what studies are going on in your neighborhood.)

Ralph’s study is concentrated over a two-week period. Ralph says the “homework” aides the researcher has recommended don’t help but he has returned willingly enough. I don’t sit in during the sessions but I come alone for moral support and read old magazines in the drab but not uncomfortable waiting room.

This afternoon another couple sits down in the waiting room with us before Ralph gets called in. I size them up: both husband and wife are a little older than us, probably early seventies, casually but tastefully dressed, whispering and smiling at each other with just an edge of nervousness that says they are first timers. She is lively and chatty, he more passive. Like Ralph.

But a few minutes before Ralph goes off with his researcher, another researcher comes for the wife. The husband and I are left together with the dated magazines. As we begin to chat about the weather and the time it took to get to the building, I am dying to bring up the obvious—if both of our spouses are in this study, they must both have the same diagnosis—but I don’t want to intrude on his privacy.

Before I can stop myself the letters M, C, and I are out of my mouth.

Yep, his wife is about a month behind “Ralph” in the process, not necessarily in terms of her degree of cognitive impairment but in terms of when she was diagnosed. She is seeing Doc L’s partner. She has just started the same drug (donezepril) Ralph is on. Her husband’s not sure what comes next.

I am almost giddy as we start comparing notes. There is so much to talk about that I haven’t been able to share with anyone else. Our hour or two together in that dinghy room flies by. I doubt I’ll ever see him again. I don’t know his name.

But for the first time, I realize I am not alone

Drinking and Smoking and MCI

II

I know, I know, if drinking and smoking are not good for anyone, their effect on people with memory loss has to be worse.

In fact one of the first things Ralph’s primary physician said after the diagnosis—no alcohol, no smoking.

But bad habits are hard to give up. And making someone else give them up is even harder. And to be honest, I’ve begun to wonder if maybe Ralph shouldn’t hang on to a few bad habits for a sense of normalcy. There are so many aspects of Ralph-ness he’s already letting go—the real estate dealmaker has lost his touch for number-crunching, the Bob Dylan fanatic doesn’t listen to music any more, the husband who used to only half-jokingly call himself the captain of the family passively agrees with every decision I make. Not that I’m complaining because Ralph’s temper has disappeared or because he’s become a sweeter, gentler human being; but the changes have spooked me a little.

God knows that for most of the length of our 35-year marriage I nagged Ralph repeatedly to cut down on both booze and nicotine. I have always been a bit of a stick-in-the-mud prude. I never smoked even as a kid and my drinking is limited to a very occasional glass of wine; after two I’m tipsy or worse. But I understand addictive habits; if there’s chocolate or ice cream in the house watch out.

Ralph has downed at least three or four cans a night for as long as I’ve known him. Well, actually, he probably drank closer to a six-pack many days. In fact when Ralph first started showing signs of cognitive loss, months before the MCI diagnosis, I thought his problems had to do with his Natty-Lite consumption (and I still believe it didn’t help). We talked about the connection—that he was always fuzzier at night, the same time of day he imbibed—and Ralph has actually cut down on his own. Now he drinks one or two, never more than three cans of lite beer around dinnertime, and not every night. Drinking less has obviously not cured his memory issues, and do I really want to take that bit of pleasure away?

As for smoking, Ralph went cold turkey when the kids were small and stayed nicotine free for over twenty years, but it only took one puff on a cigar at a Fourth of July party to get him hooked again five years ago. In retrospect he started smoking again around the same time that his memory began to slip, before we acknowledged it except as a joke although he may have been more worried privately than he let on.

At first he smoked just a cigar or two a day. He kept saying he was about to quit. Instead, he smoked more. He never smoked in the house; instead he’d find excuses to go off in his car or sit bundled up on the front porch on the coldest winter day lighting one cigar after another. All my nagging fell on deaf ears. The more anxious he became about his memory, the more he smoked. By the time he was diagnosed with MCI last spring, he was up to a pack a day. And remember, we’re talking a pack of cigars, cheap, skinny, smelly ones that have to be stronger than the equivalent number of cigarettes.

So last month, in an ironic turn of events, I found myself convincing him to switch back to cigarettes for two reasons: 1., he’d have to smoke a lot more of them to hit the same nicotine level he was reaching with the cigars and 2., my more selfish reason, the cigarettes wouldn’t stink up his clothes as much. The old Ralph would have fought me, but the new Ralph made the switch.

Now I remember how much I hate cigarettes smoke.

But two days ago I came across a 2012 Georgetown University study showing that nicotine may actually slow down MCI. I couldn’t quite believe, so I talked to the nurse practitioner in our neurologist’s office. She said the results aren’t in on Alzheimer’s-related dementia there is some evidence that nicotine helps with Parkinson’s.

Meanwhile, Ralph’s down to less than half a pack a day. So now I’m feeling guilty not only because he still drinks but also because he might quit smoking because of me. But I can’t bring myself to show him the Georgetown article.