Preventing Caregiver Burnout with Good Nutrition and Foods that Support Neurotransmitters

Keto diet concept - salmon, avocado, eggs, nuts and seedsWhether you want to support your brain health, relieve stress and anxiety about caregiving responsibilities, or just want to rev up your energy, stamina and immunity, here are some ways to protect your health and support your mood.

Start your day with an energizing breakfast to stabilize your blood sugar, so your mood stays even and you can perform at your best. When blood sugar is too high or low it’s a signal to the body to store calories, which adds fat around your middle. If you’re nauseous in the morning it means your blood sugar is low.

Eat within one hour upon rising and by 10am, and make sure your breakfast isn’t coffee and a doughnut. Have some protein and a healthy fat such as an omelet and avocado and a piece of whole grain or gluten-free toast. It’ll provide you with the energy you need to get through the morning while maintaining a sense of equilibrium.

Healthy Breakfast with Wholemeal Bread Toast and Poached Egg

Breakfast of Champions

  • Top a bagel or slice of whole wheat break with a fried egg, sliced tomato, avocado, slice of low-fat cheese
  • Bagel topped with hummus, tomato, goat cheese
  • Spread a tablespoon of almond butter on a piece of bread or bagel
  • Yogurt/granola parfait with fresh fruit
  • Sautéed greens (kale or spinach) and onion, and a corn tortilla topped with eggs, beans, sprinkle of cheese, salsa
  • Oatmeal or multi-grain cereal with almonds or walnuts, prunes, cinnamon, flax seed meal, Greek yogurt
  • Spinach mushroom omelet with salsa, berries and wheat toast
  • Whole-grain mini-quiche with ½ cup of berries

Hydrate!

Senior couple staying hydrated after running jogging

Our body is 50-65% water. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and to flush out toxins. The brain, which is 70% water, gets dehydrated just like your body. When it is dehydrated, neurotransmission—which is heavily dependent on water—is impaired, resulting in poor memory, concentration and impaired abstract thinking. The next time your mind is muddled, drink a tall glass of water and notice the difference. Choose smoothies, fresh juices, water, herbal teas.

Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout your brain and body. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight, and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance. Neurotransmitter levels can be depleted many ways. It is estimated that 86% of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels. Stress, poor diet, poor digestion, poor blood sugar control, drug (prescription and recreational), alcohol and caffeine can deplete them. (Emmons, The Chemistry of Joy, 2006).

 

list of neurotransmitters

Serotonin is necessary for a stable mood.

A deficiency can result in depression, irritability, sudden tears, insomnia, anxiety, or panic attacks, binge eating, carbohydrate craving, an overactive mind, and low tolerance to stress. When chronic stress is combined with nutrient deficiencies because of poor eating habits the risk of mood disorders can increase.

Foods that enhance serotonin: Salmon, Soy, turkey, cheese, eggs, spinach, cottage cheese, nuts, milk, avocado, meat, chocolate

Activities that enhance serotonin: cross crawl movement, as in swimming, hiking, biking

Dopamine keeps us focused and motivated. Dopamine is sometimes referred to as a “gas pedal” neurotransmitter. A deficiency can result in depressed mood, excessive sleeping, eight gain, obesity, lack of energy, addictions. When in balance, dopamine increases alertness, wakefulness, energy. It is depleted by addictions, sugar, cigarettes.

Foods that enhance dopamine: Meat, wild game, eggs, chocolate, blueberries, yoghurt, milk, soy, cheese, seeds and nuts, beans and legumes.

Activities than enhance dopamine: Deep breathing, weight bearing exercise and strength training enhance dopamine.

GABA inhibits nerve cells from firing. Too many carbs and refined foods deplete GABA. Exercise, and being outdoors, paying attention to your personal needs are important.

Passion flower, lemon balm and valerian help support GABA, especially helps you fall asleep.

How to boost your neurotransmitters

  • Focus on complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and veggies) and eliminate junk foods or refined carbs.
  • Eat 3 balanced meals and 1-2 snacks/day. Include a high-quality protein with every meal
  • Unlimited amounts of fresh veggies
  • Eat a good breakfast

Do you lie awake at night?

Lack of sleep triggers the body to increase production of cortisol, the stress hormone, which makes it harder to fall asleep and stay in a deep sleep because on some level your body and brain think they need to stay alert for danger. Although insomnia isn’t considered a disease by itself, it can lead to numerous health problems. Lack of sleep may result in slower reflexes, irritability, fatigue, lack of motivation and depression. Your health, motivation, productivity, mood and energy all depend on getting quality sleep.

Foods that promote sleep

Although it’s not recommended to have a full meal close to bedtime, eating a snack helps maintain blood sugar levels, which helps promote restful sleep.

A cheese slice, or slice of turkey contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid, that promotes sleep. Other foods that might help: Whole grain crackers with nut butter, oatmeal, popcorn, almonds and walnuts. Some fruits (oranges, bananas, tart cherries, kiwis) contain melatonin.

  • Small amount of protein
  • Complex carbs
  • Nuts
  • Cottage cheese
  • Chamomile tea, warm milk
  • Fruits

Eat more healthy fats and skip the hydrogenated and trans fats found in doughnuts, potato chips and other pastries and desserts.  Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life. Eating fish such as wild-caught salmon, sardines and other cold-water fish can protect you against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Numerous studies have shown that elderly people who did not have dementia had high blood levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an essential fatty acid found in cold-water fish, in comparison to those with dementia, who had on average 30% to 40% lower blood levels of DHA.

 Ways to increase your DHA intake: eat cold-water fish such as wild-caught salmon, sardines and mackerel, at least twice a week. Add flax meal to cereal and baked goods, sprinkle flax oil on your salad, eat a small handful of walnuts at least several times a week.

Make Healthy Choices

Choose these

  • Water, green tea, herbal teas
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Avocado, olive oil, omega-3 fatty acids
  • Fresh fruits and Veggies
  • Fish, high-quality protein
  • SOUL foods (seasonal, organic, unadulterated, local)
  • Sugar alternatives: stevia, monk fruit, coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave, birch sugar, honey

Avoid these

  • Coffee, soda, artificial sweeteners
  • Chips, cookies, pastries, candy
  • Poor quality fats (hydrogenated,
  • Processed lunch meats
  • Dairy products with rBGH (growth hormones)

Remember this

Whether you’re eating breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack, always think protein!

Assortment of healthy protein source and body building food

Build your meal around chicken, fish, tofu, cottage cheese or eggs, and then add low-starch vegetables or fruits. The general rule is to eat 3-4 ounces of lean, dense meat or 6 ounces of fish. Women should aim for around 30 grams of protein. Men should aim for around 40 grams of protein. Another rule of thumb is to divide your plate in half. Fill half of the plate with veggies, one quart with a protein, and the other quarter with a whole grain such as quinoa, rice, barley, etc.

Happy eating!


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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

 

What happens to your body when you’re a stressed caregiver?

Woman having a headacheStatistics show the stress of care giving can result in chronic disease for the caregiver and take as many as 10 years off one’s life. In comparison to caregivers of people in all categories, caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients in particular rate their health more poorly, take worse care of themselves, and spend more money on their health care. Feeling more tired and depleted, they evaluate themselves as less healthy, engage in fewer health-promoting behaviors, and use more health services.

Given the demands on caregivers’ time and energy, they may neglect their own self-care by sleeping less, eating too much or too little, not exercising, or not managing their own health problems. Neglect of their own health may worsen pre-existing illnesses or increase vulnerabilities to new stress-related problems.

The Physiology of Stress

Walter Cannon described the fight or flight response in 1929.  Adrenaline is the fight-or-flight hormone: It causes cells, especially muscle cells, to speed up energy production so that the body will be ready to fight a foe or run away. It is needed for short blasts of stress.

  • Pupils dilate to sharpen vision.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase to accelerate the delivery of oxygen to fuel the muscles and critical organs.
  • Blood flow is diverted from non-critical areas such as the gastrointestinal tract to the critical areas such as the heart, skeletal muscles and liver.
  • Liver releases glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream. Glucose is for immediate energy; fat is needed when the fight-or-flight response lasts longer than expected.
  • Bronchial tubes dilate to maximize the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Cortisol bolsters us in long-lasting stress situations. But when the body is dealing with chronic stress, the adrenals get “stuck” in the on position and the whole system goes into chronic “fight or flight.”

  • Glucose that is dumped into your bloodstream goes unused, so your body has to produce an enormous amount of insulin to handle it. Eventually, this may result in hypoglycemia or diabetes.
  • Fat that is dumped into your blood also goes unused, so it clogs your arteries, leading to cardiovascular disease.
  • If you drink caffeine, the stress hormone cortisol becomes elevated, which can set you up for countless health problems including: poor quality of sleep, impaired immunity and age-related deterioration.

Adrenal exhaustion–The adrenal glands produce or contribute to the production of about 150 hormones. When they are stressed, they become exhausted. Once the adrenal buffer is gone, you become a prime candidate for asthma, allergy, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disorders, hypoglycemia

Alcohol, caffeine, sugar and salt put added stress on the adrenals.

Stimulate, such as caffeine increase the effects of your body’s own stimulating neurotransmitters: norepinephrine and dopamine, which are similar to adrenaline in their effects. Caffeine and these natural stimulants provide short-term energy, focus and even a lifted mood. But in the long-term, caffeine depletes your stores of norepinephrine and dopamine, leaving you more tired, sluggish and down than you were before the caffeine habit.

Psychological stress can impact cardiovascular function and lead to cardiovascular disease, and possible stroke/heart attack.

Stress and sleep

Adequate sleep repairs your body, sharpens your mind and stabilizes emotions. Lack of sleep triggers the body to increase production of cortisol, which makes it harder to fall asleep and stay in a deep sleep because on some level your body and brain think they need to stay alert for danger.

  • Loss of sleep as a result of caring for a loved one can lead to serious depression.
  • As little as five nights of poor sleep can significantly stress the heart.

Weight gain and insulin resistance

  • Increased cortisol production leads to weight gain. The adrenals increase gluconeogenesis, which provides the body with glucose from protein, rather than carbohydrates. This decreases serotonin and melatonin, which results in poor sleep and leads to food cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods in order to uplift mood, which releases more serotonin and insulin. This leads to more stress and insulin production to regulate glucose, which may lead to fat storage, weight gain and insulin resistance. It becomes a vicious cycle.
  • Insufficient sleep is also associated with lower levels of leptin, a hormone that alerts the brain that it has enough food, as well as higher levels of ghrelin, a biochemical that stimulates appetite. Consequently, poor sleep may result in food cravings.

Exercise

  1. Insufficient sleep may leave us too tired to burn off extra calories with exercise.
  2. When your body is stressed and prepared to fight or run it’s full of stress hormones. If you’re sedentary, those hormones will continue to circulate and cause damage to your body. Vigorous exercise, however, burns off those hormones. Exercise also releases the neurotransmitter serotonin and endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers.
  3. Doctors from Nottingham Trent University suggest the chemical phenylethylamine is released during exercise and could play a part in uplifting mood as a result of exercise. Phenylethylamine is a naturally produced chemical that has been linked to the regulation of physical energy, mood and attention.

Impact of food on mood and physiology

Hazards of caffeine

  1. Caffeine stresses the adrenal glands and can contribute to anxiety, insomnia, depression, irritability, anxiousness—not good for caregivers. In fact, studies show that those who drink the most coffee often suffer from chronic depression. It depletes the body of B1, biotin, inositol, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and zinc. It increases thirst because it is dehydrating, over stimulates and weakens the kidneys, pancreas, liver, stomach, intestines, heart, and nervous system.
  2. Can increase production of cortisol, leading to stronger cravings for fat and carbohydrates. This increases blood glucose, release of insulin and fat stored in the abdomen.
  3. Increases dopamine levels, making you feel good until it wears off
  4. May interfere with restful sleep
  5. Try not to drink coffee after 2pm
  6. Simple carbohydrates increase insulin production.

People who are stressed often crave and overeat sugar and simple carbohydrates, like chips, cookies and white bread or pasta, because those foods provide a fast release of the feel-good chemical serotonin. But eating this way causes a blood-sugar crash a couple of hours later, leaving you tired and moody. The more of these foods that you eat the more you crave. Although these foods are high in calories, they contribute few nutrients and deplete the body of essential vitamins and minerals, raise triglycerides, and contribute to inflammation and excess weight.

  1. Lack of water/fiber can rob the body of nutrients because of problems with digestion and assimilation
  • HFCS and other artificial sweeteners can interfere with your natural production of neurotransmitters. Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal) competes with tryptophan by blocking its conversion into serotonin. Artificial sweeteners contribute to numerous adverse symptoms, as compiled by the Food and Drug Administration and include everything from menstrual changes, weight gain, and headaches to severe depression, insomnia and anxiety attacks.

High fructose corn syrup (glucose and fructose) can lead to a decrease in leptin production leading your body into thinking it’s hungry so you eat more, especially processed foods. HFCS can lead to insulin resistance and higher levels of triglycerides, as well as obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Bad habits, i.e. forgetting to eat, eating on the run, not eating breakfast all contribute to unstable blood sugar and adrenal exhaustion, which makes you grab foods that aren’t good for you, so you end up feeling irritable, moody, and even more stressed.


You get the picture? It’s important to take care of yourself, especially when you are taking care of someone else. I don’t want to overwhelm you with information or preach to you. Here’s a short checklist to help you stay healthy and balanced.

  • Eat a serving of high-quality protein with every meal and snack
  • Focus on complex carbohydrates (whole grains, veggies and fruits), and eliminate junk foods (refined carbs).
  • Enjoy unlimited amounts of fresh veggies.
  • Eat a good breakfast!
  • Eat 3 balanced meals and 1-2 snacks/day.
  • Magnesium, B complex, fish-oil, walnuts, flax seeds, dark leafy greens, and high quality all help reduce stress and uplift mood.
  • Meditate or find some quiet time for yourself
  • Exercise! At least take a short walk everyday.
  • Put on a funny YouTube video and laugh.
  • Use aromatherapy.
  • Do the best you can.

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Caring for yourself and others with good nutrition

Mary Collette Rogers interviewed me on her podcast “The Healthy Kitchen Companion.”

Find out more about Mary’s programs around The New Kitchen Way: cookhappylivehealthy.org/blog/

Discover insights and tools for handling the challenges of caregiving, particularly stress. Sobering statistics highlight the need for addressing this topic: In 2017, fully 16 million friends and family provided 18 billion hours of unpaid care for 5½ million Americans with Alzheimer’s. That figure, of course, accounts for just one of many chronic conditions that required the services of caregivers.

Equally important is the need for self-care since it is said that at some point you’ll either be a caregiver or be cared for yourself. Self-care can minimize the need for care from others, or make it possible to provide care to those you love.

In this conversation, Barbra Cohn and Mary Collette Rogers share a wealth of knowledge and strategies for using the power of good nutrition to alleviate the stress of caregiving–whether for yourself or others.

Barbra, author of Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia, provides solid nutritional advice for
** Introducing the Stress Vitamins and minerals, and foods where they can be found
** How neurotransmitters like serotonin improve mood and how to use natural mood boosters in foods to uplift mood
** Why breakfast is the most important meal of the day for caregivers and key breakfast foods
** Barbra’s secret for boosting immunity, staying hydrated and replenishing nutrients drained by stress

Mary Collette, Healthy Kitchen Companion, explores how to ensure that Barbra’s nutritional wisdom doesn’t just get parked at the kitchen door. With The New Kitchen Way, her integrated approach to meal making, you’ll see good nutrition advice actually show up on your table–deliciously and easily. Learn
** About the power of organization and why it works as well in the kitchen as the business world
** How chaos and lack of control are the true culprits that sabotage kitchen fun and success
** How organization alleviates stress when you invite it into your kitchen and meal making
** How the kitchen and meal making can be broken down into just six areas, and
** How the 6 KitchenSmart Strategies easily guide you to get those six areas under control, leaving you relieved and confident about making nourishing meals.

 

 

Have you tried any of these natural ways to combat depression?

St. John's Wort capsulesOctober 11 is National Depression Screening Day. If you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed or have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning because you don’t want to face the world it’s time to evaluate your emotional health. You can take an anonymous screening online here: Select a state to find a screening.

If you are suicidal please call the national suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.  The Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.


If you have mild to moderate depression, there are a number of proven natural supplements and modalities that can help.

While I cared for my husband who had younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, I lived behind a persona of forced cheerfulness because I didn’t want anyone to know that my private world was being deconstructed bit by bit. I went through bouts of depression and grieving periods. I took the supplement St. John’s wort, danced and meditated. I met with girlfriends and did yoga. I also used essential oils and tried to eat well. It all helped.

I gave St John’s wort to my husband, too, until he was in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. By then he needed a pharmaceutical anti-depressant. But the St. John’s wort worked well for mild to moderate depression.

  1. Here’s what we know about St. John’s wort
  • It is a safe and effective way to treat mild to moderate depression over long periods of time
  • Is similarly effective as standard antidepressants
  • It has minimal side effects when compared to standard antidepressants

One study done on laboratory animals found that St, John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has antidepressant properties similar to standard antidepressants. The antidepressant profile of H. perforatum is closely related to the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors class of antidepressants.

A Swiss study evaluated 440 patients suffering from mild to moderate depression and treated them with 500 mg. of St. John’s wort for up to one year. Although mild side effects such as upset stomach were reported—which may or may NOT have been related to the treatment—the researchers reported that is a safe and effective way to treat mild to moderate depression over long periods of time. They also found that it is especially suitable for preventing a relapse.

A meta-analysis at the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research, Technische Universitaet Muenchen, Munich, Germany analyzed 29 trials (which included 5,489 patients), comparing St. John’s wort with placebo or standard antidepressants. The evidence suggests that the hypericum extracts tested in the included trials a) are superior to placebo in patients with major depression; b) are similarly effective as standard antidepressants; c) and have fewer side effects than standard antidepressants.

2. Support serotonin levels. Omega 3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. Your brain is 60% fat and depends on the fat you ingest from food. Healthy fats found in cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and in olive oil, walnuts, flax and avocado will improve your mood. It is important to cook with a healthy fat such as olive oil, walnut or avocado in order to feed your brain! Canola oil, peanut oil, and safflower are not able to provide you with the fat your brain needs.

As a nutrition educator, I also like to recommend foods that increase the “happy” neurotransmitter serotonin. Whole grains, sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, support your brain’s ability to process more serotonin.

3. Drink water. Your brain needs to stay hydrated. Make sure you drink at least six tall glasses of water every day. When my mom went into the hospital for severe dehydration, among other things, she began hallucinating. A psychiatrist called to tell me “your mom has full-blown dementia.” I said, “No she doesn’t,”  and refused to allow the doctor to prescribe an anti-psychotic prescription. Sure enough, several days later my mom sounded completely normal. Her body had been dehydrated, as well as her brain. The simple habit of drinking water is sometimes all we need to maintain mood and mental health.

4. The Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments published a report in the “Canadian Journal of Psychiatry” in 2016 with this conclusion: For the management of mild to moderate depression it says exercise, light therapy, St. John’s wort, omega-3 fatty acids, SAM-e, and yoga are recommended as first- or second-line treatments.

5. A recently published study in the “Journal of Clinical Medicine” concluded that individuals who engaged in a meditative movement practice of Tai Chi, Qigong, or Yoga showed significantly improved treatment remission rates. The researchers conclude that emphasizing the therapeutic effects of meditative movements for treating MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) is critical because it may provide a useful alternative to existing mainstream treatments (drug therapy and psychotherapy) for MDD. Given the fact that meditative movements are safe and easily accessible, clinicians may consider recommending meditative movements for symptomatic management in this population.

6. Music is the universal language as well as one of the most common ways to affect mood.  My husband was never without head phones as he listened to music and wandered through the halls of the memory care home where he lived the last two years of his life. Music made him happy. It makes toddlers spin until they’re dizzy, teens hand bang until their necks get sore, and adults drum their car’s steering wheel. Music also helps decrease anxiety and improves functioning of depressed individuals as found in a meta-analysis that concluded music therapy provides short-term beneficial effects for people with depression. 

Other natural ways to combat depression

7. Create a calm environment. Light candles at dinner, play classical music, have a vase of fresh flowers on the table.

8. Get some physical exercise every day; even just a 20 minute walk helps tremendously.

9. Use aromatherapy oils. For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn

10. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.

11. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship,  hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.

12. Sleep well by getting to bed before 11:00 pm, eating your last meal before 8pm, turning off your electronic devices, and eliminating light in your bedroom. If you have trouble sleeping consider using a lavender essential oil spray on your pillow or a sachet of lavender inserted into the pillowcase. There are lots of natural sleep aids available at your local health food store, such as melatonin, calcium/magnesium, valerian, hops, etc. Consult with a nutritional consultant about what might work best for you.

“Surround yourself with people who are only going to lift you higher.” anonymous


 

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

The Stigma of Having Dementia: To tell or not to tell

若い女性One of the hardest things about getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is deciding when and whom to tell. When my husband was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease at 60 years old we were afraid that people would treat him differently, and that our friends would write us off.

Although we were excluded from some social events and intimate dinners by friends who didn’t have the patience to listen to the same story repeated over and over, or by those who simply didn’t know how to act around someone with dementia, most of our friends created a warm, caring cocoon that helped us feel safe and loved.

In the beginning, I refrained from telling our children about their dad’s diagnosis for an entire year, hoping to delay their heartache. Our youngest daughter had just gone off to college and we wanted her to have one year in which she could focus on her studies and friends, without worrying about her parents.

I tried my best to cover up my husband’s gaffes, slips of memory, and awkwardness in social situations. Eventually, we withdrew from our old life because of the challenges that accompany dementia, and we socialized only with family and intimate friends. Our world became increasingly smaller as I became lonelier and more isolated.

When I look back at that time I find it naïve to think that divine intervention or a miracle would cure my husband. After all, I thought, why tell people about his diagnosis when perhaps he’ll be cured as a result of taking myriad nutritional supplements and getting healings from alternative practitioners? It can remain our little secret.

It turns out that according to a survey published in the World Alzheimer’s Report 2012: Overcoming the Stigma of Dementia, we weren’t alone in trying to keep my husband’s diagnosis a secret. (We did tell my parents, his brother, and a few very close friends.) Nearly one in four people with dementia (24 percent) who responded to the survey said they hid their diagnosis, citing stigma as the main reason. They expressed concerns that their thoughts and opinions would be discounted and dismissed, and that they would be treated more positively if they did not reveal their diagnosis.

Why worry about stigma when you’ve got so many other worries?

Identifying stigma is important because it:
• Gets in the way of receiving the proper help and care people with dementia need in order to live life optimally
• Leads to stereotyping and discriminating of the elderly and those with dementia
• Damages the fragile self-esteem of people with dementia
• Is a major cause of social isolation for the dementia patient and his or her family
• Is a barrier to the caregiver’s utilization of community services and obtaining support from family and friends
• Reduces the depression and burden for the caregiver

Doctors keep secrets, too. What happens when the doctor doesn’t reveal a diagnosis?

According to a report released March 24, 2015 by the Alzheimer’s Association, just 45 percent of Medicare patients who’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s said they were informed of the diagnosis by their doctor. By contrast, more than 90 percent of Medicare patients with cancer said they were told by their doctor.

One reason doctors often cite for not telling patients is the time constraints of a typically short appointment, says Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs at the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s difficult to disclose a diagnosis of a fatal brain disease in just a few minutes,” he says. (The average length of time a doctor spends with a Medicare patient is just 8 minutes.)

It’s also hard for doctors to tell patients they have a disease that can’t be stopped or even slowed down by a drug or surgery, Fargo says. And, he says, doctors often fear the emotional reaction an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can cause.

However, the Alzheimer’s Association believes that telling the person with Alzheimer’s the truth about his or her diagnosis should be standard practice. Disclosure can be delivered in a sensitive and supportive manner that avoids unnecessary distress. And based on the principles of medical ethics, there is widespread agreement among health care professionals that people have the right to know and understand their diagnosis

Disclosing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis has several benefits:

  • Allows better access to quality medical care and support services
  • Provides an opportunity for people with a diagnosis to participate in decisions about their care, including providing informed consent for current and future treatment plans
  • Enables the patient to get the maximum benefit from available treatments
  • Increases the chance of participating in clinical drug trials

What can you do?

In response to the World Alzheimer’s Report 2012: Overcoming the Stigma of Dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association came up with these tips for coping with stigma created by people living with the disease. Current and former members of the Alzheimer’s Association National Early-Stage Advisory Group developed these tips based on their personal experiences:

  • Be open and direct. Engage others in discussions about Alzheimer’s disease and the need for prevention, better treatment and an eventual cure.
  • Communicate the facts. Sharing accurate information is key to dispelling misconceptions about the disease. Whether a pamphlet or link to online content, offer information to help people better understand Alzheimer’s disease.
    • Seek support and stay connected. It is important to stay engaged in meaningful relationships and activities. Whether family, friends or a support group, a network is critical.
    • Don’t be discouraged. Denial of the disease by others is not reflection of you. If people think that Alzheimer’s disease is normal aging, see it as an education opportunity.
    • Be a part of the solution. Advocate for yourself and millions of others by speaking out and raising awareness. If you have the time and inclination, write letters to your state representatives, and to your newspaper.

If you or a loved one have received a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease I encourage you to not keep it a secret as I did. Be open and share your feelings with your family and friends. Unfortunately, because Alzheimer’s disease is predicted to become an epidemic for the Baby Boomer generation, almost everyone will be touched by it in one way or other. It’s important that we do our best to educate the public and the best place to start is within our circle of family and friends—-because ignorance leads to fear and understanding leads to compassion.


 

What does marijuana do for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients?

Medical marijuana from the DoctorMy husband passed away eight years ago from younger-onset Alzheimer’s.  Recreational marijuana is now legal in Colorado, but before medical marijuana was legal I’d find a way to obtain it for him to smoke or eat in cookies and brownies. It calmed him down and made him happy. It reduced his anxiety, but it definitely did not help his memory. And that’s not what I was looking for. I just wanted him to feel calmer, and in so doing, it helped me feel more at ease. (Please read Is it a good idea for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to use marijuana?)

I am not a scientist, but having interpreted studies for the nutritional supplement industry for several decades I can say that it’s possible to find a pro and con study for almost any drug, nutraceutical, herb, vitamin or mineral. Every person is unique, every situation is unique and every environmental factor will influence the outcome of a scientific study in some way. This fact is especially interesting: Because of the federal restrictions, researchers’ only legal source of cannabis for study is a Mississippi farm. But the marijuana plants there are not necessarily identical to those that people get at the dispensary or on the street. Just another indication that studies don’t always demonstrate accurate findings.

Marijuana studies vary in quality and the conclusions are frequently conflicting, according to experts on the issue. What we do know is that marijuana contains hundreds of chemical compounds, the most powerful of which are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD. THC produces the psychoactive effects — the marijuana high. CBD has a role in pain control and also moderates the effect of THC. But many strains of marijuana in use today have high concentrations of THC and little CBD to balance it. The long-term effects of this shift are unknown.

Here are some recent studies showing the effects of marijuana use on cognition, dementia and heart health.

  1. It’s a known fact that high beta-amyloid—the culprit in Alzheimer’s disease—triggers inflammation and nerve cell death. This leads to memory loss and cognitive deficits. A study published in the journal Aging and Mechanisms of Disease (Amyloid proteotoxicity initiates an inflammatory response blocked by cannabinoids) found that the compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) reduced beta-amyloid levels and eradicated the inflammatory response to beta-amyloid, preventing nerve cellular death. While clinical trials are needed to confirm the role THC might play in protecting nerve cells against beta-amyloid, the researchers believe their findings shed more light on the role beta-amyloid plays in Alzheimer’s disease, which could pave the way for new treatments.
  2. Another study examined mice with induced symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The laboratory animals were given a combination of THC and CBD.  The animals displayed improved learning and had less evidence of amyloid clumps in their bodies. Other researchers believe that targeting the CB2 receptor could control the activity of microglia, (a type of cell located throughout the brain and spinal cord) preventing the potentially harmful overactivation of the immune system in the brain.
  3. A Harvard study indicates that medical marijuana has a positive impact on executive functioning in adults. The study points out that medical marijuana products themselves may protect against the executive function deficits that affect most recreational marijuana users because of the inherent differences between medical and recreational products. Medical products are usually low in THC, the primary psychoactive constituent of the plant, and high in other cannabinoids, including CBD. CBD is a non-psychoactive component touted for its therapeutic potential, which may also mitigate some of the negative effects of THC. On self-report questionnaires, patients also indicated moderate improvements in quality of sleep and depression. Obviously, individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s are not  making important decisions, but this study shows how cannabis can help with sleep and mood.
  4. Research presented in March 2017 at the American College of Cardiology’s 66th Annual Scientific Session showed that using marijuana raises the vascular risks of stroke and heart failure, both major risk factors leading to vascular dementia. Research in cell cultures shows that heart muscle cells have cannabis receptors relevant to contractility, or squeezing ability, suggesting that those receptors might be one mechanism through which marijuana use could affect the cardiovascular system. The study drew data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, which includes the health records of patients admitted at more than 1,000 hospitals comprising about 20 percent of U.S. medical centers. Researchers extracted records from young and middle-aged patients—age 18-55 years—who were discharged from hospitals in 2009 and 2010, when marijuana use was illegal in most states. Marijuana use was diagnosed in about 1.5 percent (316,000) of more than 20 million health records included in the analysis. Comparing cardiovascular disease rates in these patients to disease rates in patients not reporting marijuana use, researchers found marijuana use was associated with a significantly increased risk for cardiovascular events such as stroke, heart failure, coronary artery disease and sudden cardiac death. Marijuana use was also linked with a variety of factors known to increase cardiovascular risk, such as obesity, high blood pressure, smoking and alcohol use. After researchers adjusted the analysis to account for these factors, marijuana use was independently associated with a 26 percent increase in the risk of stroke and a 10 percent increase in the risk of developing heart failure.

“Even when we corrected for known risk factors, we still found a higher rate of both stroke and heart failure in these patients, so that leads us to believe that there is something else going on besides just obesity or diet-related cardiovascular side effects,” the lead researcher said. “More research will be needed to understand the pathophysiology behind this effect.”

Conclusion

A lot of clinical research needs to be done in order for the medical community and Alzheimer’s Association to recommend the use of cannabis for Alzheimer’s and dementia.

As with any pharmaceutical, it’s important to understand that no drugs are, as a general rule, 100% safe. But if they can fix something, we take a calculated risk by using them. If cannabis calms down an agitated person, helps with sleep, puts a smile on one’s frozen face, it might be worth trying. If you do decide to give it to an individual with Alzheimer’s, please be cautious. Start with a very small dose in a cookie or brownie and see what the reaction is. Watch for signs of distress and nausea. And hope for some sense of calm and joy.

It helped my husband relax and appear as his old, happy self. But it certainly didn’t help his cognition.


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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you putting yourself at risk for dementia with OTC medications and prescription drugs?

Reading Instructions from PharmacyA new study links the increased risk of dementia with certain medications. (Anticholinergic drugs and risk of dementia: case-control study) The focus of the study was on drugs that have anticholinergic effects. Acetylcholine is vital to memory and learning. There are lower levels of this neurotransmitter in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, animal studies have shown that anticholinergic drugs may contribute to brain inflammation, another risk factor for dementia.

It’s estimated that approximately 50% of adults in the U.S. take one or more medications with an anticholinergic effect. Some of the most common are:

  • amitriptyline (Endep, Elavil), paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva), and bupropion (Aplenzin, Wellbutin). These drugs are commonly taken for depression)
  • oxybutynin and tolterodine, taken for an overactive bladder, found in Ditropan, Oxytrol.
  • diphenhydramine, a common antihistamine found in: Advil PM, Aleve PM, Bayer PM, Benadryl, Excedrin PM, Nytol, Simply Sleep, Sominex, Tylenol PM, Unisom, etc.
  • Chlorpheniramine, found in Actifed, Allergy & Congestion RElief, Chlor-Trimeton, Codeprex, Efidac-24 Chlorpheniramine, etc.

According to Shelly Gray, professor pharmacy at the University of Washington, and author of  Cumulative Use of Strong Anticholinergics and Incident Dementia” (March 2015, JAMA Internal Med.), the longer people took the drugs and the higher the dose, the higher the risk of dementia, although it’s important to note that short-term use was not linked to higher risks.

Gray suggested that people, especially seniors, who have trouble sleeping find a non-drug therapy for insomnia Celexa and Prozac for depression and Claritin for allergies.  She emphasized that it is important to speak with one’s doctor before stopping a medication that you have been taking.

Natural alternatives

Help for depression

  1. Get some physical exercise every day; even just a 20 minute walk helps tremendously.
  2. Use aromatherapy oils. For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn
  3.  I gave my husband Ginkgo biloba for depression (and also took it myself). It helped right up until he was in late stage Alzheimer’s. One word of advice, not all brands are efficacious, so pick one carefully. Also note that it takes about 6 weeks to notice an effect. This is a typical difference of taking a pharmaceutical versus a natural remedy.
  4. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.
  5. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life.
  6. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship,  hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group, or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.

Natural sleep aids

  1. Try valerian, passion-flower or skullcap herbal tea at least a couple of hours before bedtime.
  2. A cup of warm milk with a small pinch of cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric and cumin, and an 1/8 of a tsp of ghee is a tasty and relaxing bedtime drink. The calcium in the milk is a muscle relaxant and the Indian spices help induce relaxation. Experiment to see which spices you like.
  3. Eat a banana. Bananas contain potassium and magnesium that help reduce risk of muscle cramps. These two minerals also support heart health and cognitive function.
  4. A drop in blood sugar during the night can cause us to wake up. Although it’s better to not go to sleep on a full stomach, a small protein snack such as a slice of cheese or smear of peanut butter on a cracker can help maintain balanced blood sugar.
  5. Melatonin supplements help some people, but you might have to experiment with the dosage. I like Natural Vitality’s Natural Calm, a powdered calcium supplement that you put in water or juice. I also like the homeopathic remedy Hyland’s Calms Forte.
  6. Spritz lavender oil on your pillow or put a sachet of lavender flowers under your pillow.

Natural antihistamines

  1. Quercetin is a bioflavonoid that is naturally found in plant foods such as apples, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli or cauliflower), onions/shallots, green tea and citrus fruits. It stabilizes the release of histamines and helps to naturally control allergy symptoms.
  2. Apple cider vinegar is my new “go to” remedy for almost everything. I take 1 Tablespoon everyday by pinching my nose and drinking water to flush it down. It helps alkalize the body and supports immune function.
  3. Butterbur is a natural herb that is sold as an extract. A study published in August 2005 in Phytotherapy Research found that when compared to an antihistamine, the butterbur extract worked just as well, without the side effect of drowsiness.
  4. Remember that Claritin does not contain diphenhydramine, so use it by all means if these other remedies do not do the trick.

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Do you worry about developing digital dementia?

Cropped Group of friends standing on table and browsing in their divices in modern roomI recently listened to a lecture about the dangers of digital dementia, and I think it’s an important topic to explore on the healthycaregiverblog. Essentially, it’s a condition that develops overtime after becoming addicted to and overusing digital technology. This includes smart phones, computers, reading devices, and tablets. The term was coined by German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer and describes how the result of overuse of digital technology is resulting in the breakdown of cognitive abilities, which first appear as something similar to attention disorder.

Our kids are on their phones too much, they play video games for hours, and studies have shown they are having an increasingly harder time concentrating on schoolwork. An article in Psychology Today (Susan Greenfield Ph.D., 7.1.15) says “We know that action video gaming is linked with greater brain volume in the striatum (1) but this may be at the expense of a reduction in hippocampal volume. (2) Although this proposal requires further investigation, previous research has shown that reduced grey matter in the hippocampus is associated with an increased risk for schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and dementia, amongst other disorders.”

According to the Kaiser Foundation’s shocking report, elementary-age children use entertainment technology for an average of 7.5 hours a day.

  • 75% of these children have televisions in their bedrooms
  • 68% of two-year-olds regularly use tablets
  • 59% have smartphones
  • 44% have game consoles.

While occasional digital screen time may be okay, many parents rely on them for babysitting and some peace and quiet. An ASHA Survey of the U.S. states that:

“…more than half of parents surveyed say they use technology to keep kids ages 0–3 entertained; nearly 50% of parents of children age 8 report they often rely on technology to prevent behavior problems and tantrums.”

However, just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s okay. What exactly should we be worried about?

Spitzer proposes that short-term memory pathways will start to deteriorate from underuse if we overuse technology. I know for my self that I am addicted to checking my email and friends’ Facebook posts. I have also realized that it is more difficult for me to concentrate on reading the newspaper because I can get the nugget of information more quickly online than reading an entire article. I’m just thankful my overuse of technology hasn’t gotten in the way of my love for reading hand-held old-fashioned books.

But what about putting myself at risk for dementia? Should I worry? Should you worry?

YES!

Here’s why: All digital devices emit high levels of blue light and blue light has been proven to increase cortisol levels.  Cortisol is the stress hormone.  Chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to shrinkage in some brain areas, most notably the hippocampus, which is what is associated with memory and recall. This is the area first affected in Alzheimer’s disease.  Elevated cortisol is also a major contributor to obesity and Type II Diabetes.  It also disrupts our normal circadian rhythm leading to sleep disorders. Over 25,000 articles have been published in scientific journals over the last 30 years about the effects of EMF’s (electromagnetic fields) on human health.

I think we all need to be cognizant of how much time we spend behind the screen–any screen, including TV. Here are some ways to turn of the technology, re-establish healthy social interaction and get healthier at the same time.

Include your family in setting these parameters

  1. Get outside as much as possible. Walk more. Get a dog so you have to go outside and walk. Exposure to natural sun light is much preferred over sitting in front of a digital device that emits blue light.
  2. Limit the time digital technology is used in your home. Set a specific time and limit that time.
  3. Read more, read together.
  4. Enjoy a joint or individual project. Have a game night or an ongoing puzzle set up in the family room.
  5. Make it a strict rule: no phones or TV at the dinner table. That includes at  restaurants.
  6. Learn games on non-electronic formats. For instance, instead of learning how to play chess on a computer, get a chess set and set up the board. Leave it out; don’t put it away. It’ll encourage your family to play more often.
  7. Write a play and then act it out for the family or neighborhood
  8. Learn how to play a musical instrument.
  9. Join a sports team.
  10. Walk a neighbor’s dog or babysit.

You will enjoy more social interaction, feel happier, healthier and more at peace with yourself and the world around you.

 

  1. Kühn S, Romanowski A, Schilling C, Lorenz R, Mörsen C, Seiferth N, … & Gallinat J. (2011). The neural basis of video gaming. Translational Psychiatry, 1(11), e53
  2. West GL, Drisdelle BL, Konishi K, Jackson J, Jolicoeur P, & Bohbot VD. (2015). Habitual action video game playing is associated with caudate nucleus-dependent navigational strategies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282(1808)

 

 

Can depression be a sign of dementia?

Depressed Senior Woman Sitting OutsideDepression can affect our memory, and it can result from not being able to do the things that were once easy for us, as in the case of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Depression can result from a number of factors and it often appears differently in different people

Some people are able to hide the fact that they are terribly depressed. I did. I tried to put on a happy face during my husband’s illness, but inside I often felt as though I was dying. Following the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, we have to remind ourselves that we usually don’t know what is happening inside someone else’s head.

Before my husband was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease he was withdrawn and depressed. I didn’t know what exactly what was going on, and he was unable to articulate how he felt. I eventually realized that he was depressed because the things that were once effortless for him to do, such as driving around town or figuring out how much tip to leave in a restaurant, had become difficult.

Alzheimer’s and depression often occur simultaneously, which often makes it difficult for physicians to make a diagnosis without further testing. According to James M. Ellison, MD of the Swank Memory Care Center, Christiana Care Health System, approximately half of individuals affected by Alzheimer’s disease will experience clinically significant depressive symptoms at some point.  Depression can occur during any phase of the illness.

Symptoms common to Alzheimer’s and depression

  • Loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable
  • Memory issues
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Impaired concentration
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Crying, feelings of hopelessness, despair
  • Unmotivated
  • Lack of energy, lethargy, apathy
  • Irritability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

A case of the chicken or the egg: which came first, Alzheimer’s or depression?

Some health professionals think that depression can put one at greater risk for Alzheimer’s. There is also a belief that depression is a symptom of Alzheimer’s. In any case, physicians feel that a person with dementia who is depressed can experience a quicker cognitive decline and need to rely more on caregivers.

What to do?

8 natural ways to combat depression.

Antidepressants may not work as well with people who have Alzheimer’s and are depressed. Before resorting to antidepressants and other drugs,  try these options:

  1. Provide a safe and calm environment. Light candles at dinner, play classical music, have a vase of fresh flowers on the table.
  2. Get some physical exercise every day; even just a 20 minute walk helps tremendously.
  3. Use aromatherapy oils. For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn
  4.  I gave my husband Ginkgo biloba for depression (and also took it myself). It helped right up until he was in late stage Alzheimer’s. One word of advice, not all brands are efficacious, so pick one carefully. Also note that it takes about 6 weeks to notice an effect. This is a typical difference of taking a pharmaceutical versus a natural remedy.
  5. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.
  6. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life.
  7. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship,  hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group, or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.
  8. Sleep well by getting to bed before 11:00 pm, eating your last meal before 8pm, turning off your electronic devices, and eliminating light in your bedroom. Studies have indicated that sleep deprivation can increase risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If you have trouble sleeping consider using a lavender essential oil spray on your pillow or a sachet of lavender inserted into the pillowcase. There are lots of natural sleep aids available at your local health food store, such as melatonin, calcium/magnesium, valerian, hops, etc. Consult with a nutritional consultant about what might work best for you.

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

You have a dementia diagnosis, now what?

Senior doctor talking with patient and tablet in officeJune is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month. It’s a good time to have a physical exam, especially if you are worried about your memory not being as sharp as it used to be or if you’re having trouble coping with daily life. If you’ve noticed that someone close to you is showing signs of withdrawal, depression or confusion, please strongly suggest that he or she make an appointment for an exam, too.

Here’s the scenario of how my husband Morris and I received his diagnosis. I’ve provided a list below it to help you tread water when you feel as though you’re drowning.


There were several indications that something was wrong with my husband two years before he was diagnosed. This tall, good-looking man, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, was having trouble calculating how much tip to leave a waitress. When we went to Spain for our twenty-fifth anniversary, Morris couldn’t figure out how much money the hotel would cost in dollars. This man, who once memorized train and airplane schedules without even trying, followed me around the city like a puppy dog as we boarded a subway or bus en route to tourist attractions.

That following fall—our daughter’s last year in high school—Morris couldn’t give directions to a friend who was taking the SAT at the high school my husband had attended in Denver. I got out the map to help him, but he couldn’t read the map. That was the moment I knew something was very wrong. When he left for a road trip to California with our son and forgot his suitcase, I sat on the stairs and cried. I couldn’t deny it any longer. I had a strong suspicion that Morris had Alzheimer’s disease, and although I pleaded with him for two years to see a neurologist, he refused.

Finally, he agreed. The doctor (I’ll call her “Dr. Fitzgerald”) asked Morris why he had come in. “My wife thinks I might have Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

“You wouldn’t be able to drive here yourself if you had Alzheimer’s,” she replied.

Nonetheless, Dr. Fitzgerald gave Morris the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE, a thirty point questionnaire used to screen cognitive impairment), asking questions such as, “What are the year, season, date, day, and month?” and progressing to more difficult questions that included counting backward from one hundred by serial sevens. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably be slow on the draw to count backward by sevens. At least I’d have to stop and think about it before responding. Morris botched up that question, and he wasn’t able to draw the face of a clock either. The concept of time was already an elusive abstraction.

Dr. Fitzgerald ordered a blood work-up to rule out an organic problem such as hypoactive thyroid—which can cause memory problems—and an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging) to rule out a brain tumor. To tell you the truth, I was hoping for a brain tumor because at least you can take the bull by the horns and really go at the darn thing with radiation and a scalpel. Well, there was no brain tumor and his blood panel looked just fine.

A week later, just as we were investigating the cost of long-term health insurance, Dr. Fitzgerald called to ask Morris to bring in his wife to the follow-up appointment. I’m sorry to say that one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made was to schedule that appointment without first buying long-term care insurance. Once you get a diagnosis such as Alzheimer’s, there’s no way you’re going to qualify for long-term care insurance, which could potentially save a family thousands of dollars in catastrophic health care costs.

In the early afternoon of January 3, 2001, Morris and I sat in a dimly lit exam room on wooden frame chairs with hunter green cushions on the seat and back. He wore a sweater woven from various shades of blue and gray that highlighted his eyes. We waited for the doctor to knock on the door, the way they usually do. Morris didn’t appear nervous; probably because he didn’t think there was anything wrong with him. But my stomach was wound tight from anxiety and my lungs were working hard to expel phlegm. It didn’t help that the stale re-circulated air had a metallic odor of fear that was probably generated by patients who had received bad news.

Dr. Fitzgerald finally came in and sat on Morris’s left. She had cropped hair and spoke in a blunt, choppy cadence that matched her no-nonsense appearance. Without much of an introduction, the doctor asked me a few questions about Morris, speaking as if he were invisible.

“How is his driving?” she asked.

“He tends to get lost driving in familiar neighborhoods,” I responded, noting the twitch in Morris’s right cheek. I felt my lungs squeeze, and a high-pitched wheeze escaped from my chest.

“Here is the Mini-Mental State Exam Morris took the last time we met.”

His drawing of a house looked like a dilapidated mine shaft. Without waiting for a response, Dr. Fitzgerald turned to Morris and said, “You have Alzheimer’s disease.” Morris froze and his face turned white, while I burst out crying.


I hope that if you ever get a diagnosis such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, vascular dementia or a similar devastating disease, your doctor is compassionate and gentle about the delivery of the news that will forever change your life and the lives of your loved ones. I wrote “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia” after caring for my husband for 10 years, in order to help other caregivers feel more confident, happier, healthier, and deal with feelings of guilt and grief.

For hundreds of other caregiving tips, find “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia” on AmazonBarnes and Noble, at other fine book stores, and many libraries.

 

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What can and should you do after getting a diagnosis?

It is understandable that you will have many conflicting feelings such as disbelief, anger, depression, sadness, fear, grief, and shock. You may even feel relieved that you finally know why you are not feeling like yourself. It can be helpful to talk about what you’re feeling and thinking rather than to keep things bottled up inside. In addition to talking with people who are close to you, you can contact the Alzheimer’s Association® at 1.800.272.3900.

You don’t have to tell everyone about your diagnosis if you don’t want to. But if you are still working, or if your boss has questioned your work habits, etc., it’s a good idea to inform him or her of your diagnosis, especially since you might be eligible for  Social Security Disability Insurance.

Your health is more important than ever

Just because you receive a diagnosis doesn’t mean you should give up trying to live a healthy life. You probably still have a lot of years ahead of you, so enjoy them as much as you can. Continue to get daily physical exercise such as walking, biking, hiking, dancing, swimming. Eat a Mediterranean based diet that includes lots of fresh veggies, fruits, nuts,  fish, whole grains, avocado and olive oil.

Stay socially connected as much as possible. It’s normal to feel depressed and it’s okay if you don’t feel like “going out” as much as you used to. But it’s important not to isolate yourself. Keep golfing, bowling, playing cards, as much as you can. Continue to meet with friends for lunch or a movie. If you feel the need to talk, make an appointment with a therapist who specializes in helping people with dementia.

Visit museums, spend time with grandchildren, get a pet (if you don’t already have one), attend an Alzheimer’s Association Memory Cafe. The Alzheimer’s Association’s Memory Cafés offer a fun and relaxed way for people living with early-stage memory loss to get connected with one another through social events that promote interaction and companionship. This is a place where the care partner can receive information while connecting and sharing with other people in similar situations.  Keep busy!

 Legal and Financial Planning for the Future

This is the time to start planning for the future. Taking the time to make decisions about matters that will affect your health care and your finances before you are unable to manage them is one of the most important steps you can take for yourself and your family.

There are many legal and financial documents that will help you formalize your plans and wishes such as:

Durable Power of Attorney

In this document you appoint a person you trust to make legal and financial decisions on your behalf, if you become unable to do so for yourself.

Health Care Proxy

In this document you appoint a person to make medical decisions on your behalf, if you become unable to do so for yourself. It’s important that you speak with the person you appoint about the kind of medical care you would or wouldn’t like so that they can carry out your wishes.

Living Will

Some people also want to make a Living Will in addition to having a Health Care Proxy. In this document, you can state your wishes about end-of-life care.

Last Will & Testament

The purpose of this document is to designate how your assets will be distributed after your death. This will must be completed with the assistance of an attorney.

All the best to you and your families. 

With love,

Barbra Cohn