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Fighting Alzheimer's

Dr. Oz’s Tips for Caring for a Loved One With Alzheimer’s

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

The host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” Dr. Mehmet Oz is a cardiothoracic surgeon whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2019. We asked him about the best ways to care for a loved one who has the disease, as well as his thoughts on the state of Alzheimer’s research.

What are the main signs to look out for with Alzheimer’s? Who is most at risk?

The early signs of Alzheimer’s vary but can include having trouble concentrating, getting lost in familiar places, having difficulty completing routine tasks at home, and misplacing items and not being able to retrace your steps. Other signs may include changes in mood, personality, and withdrawal from work and social activities. Also, the symptoms progress over time, which can lead to confusion along with the inability to learn new things. This is not an exhaustive list, but if you notice any of these signs in a loved one, please do not ignore them. Schedule an appointment with their doctor. 

People 65 and older are at the highest risk for the disease. However, other risk factors include a previous diagnosis in the family, smoking, a prior traumatic head injury, cardiovascular disease, and/or having a specific gene called APOE4. There are genetic tests that can tell you if you have this gene, but it is important to note that even if you do, it does not necessarily mean you will develop the disease. 

My mother’s family has a strong history of Alzheimer’s, but I did not confirm her genetic profile until after her diagnosis. Unfortunately, Mom has two APOE4 genes, so was at a much higher baseline risk. We should have treated her more aggressively years ago when the plaque was first developing, which should be the game plan for anyone with our family history and genetic profile. I received one of my mother’s genes (obviously), so I am careful about my personal risk factors, and accordingly watch my diet carefully and am a diligent exerciser. 

After a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, what should be the first step in helping them?

The Alzheimer’s Association says educating yourself about the disease is the best first step. I agree, and I’d also add that caregivers need to make sure that they have a support system in place and are taking care of themselves. You should also immediately address any safety risks that are in their home and have a serious conversation about daily activities that could be dangerous like driving, cooking, and ironing. I also stopped arguing with my mother about memory-based issues and let her win those battles so I can focus on safety rules. 

How can caregivers provide help to slow down Alzheimer’s progression?

There are multiple ways that we, as caregivers, can slow cognitive decline in our loved ones. Providing a diet full of whole grains, fruits, healthy fats, and vegetables is not only important for slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s but can also help improve the patient’s overall health (and your own!). 

Other ways to help slow the progression include encouraging physical exercise (mom walks 10,000 steps daily), engaging in social interactions, and keeping brains “active” through activities like reading books, taking dance classes, and working on a variety of puzzles (e.g., crosswords, numbers, pictures). Talking to my mother about her memories excites her and brings levity to the days. 

How can caregivers transform their homes for the benefit of a loved one who has Alzheimer’s?

When caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, providing a safe home environment is incredibly important for preventing accidental falls and injuries. The first thing you should do is to check all of the rooms in your home for potential hazards. For example, the floors in the bathroom and shower can be very slippery. One way to address this concern would be installing grab bars in the shower and using “non-skid” rugs on the floor. 

What are your thoughts on the research that is being done to treat the disease? 

In June, the FDA approved a drug for the early stages of Alzheimer’s called Aduhelm that works by targeting the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain — this is thought to be the underlying cause of the disease. However, this drug is controversial since two clinical trials have had conflicting results: One study showed it helped, while the other showed no effect. Still, despite the controversy, I am hopeful that this and other new developments that are in the works can help millions of people, like my mom, who live with this challenging disease. 

The silver lining is that the FDA has said they are willing to accept new medications that address the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s (even if clinical benefits are marginal), with hope that some will result in important clinical improvement, especially in more advanced cases. This will encourage more drug discovery. 

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