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Alzheimer's Disease Treated with Art

Updated on November 10, 2009

What is Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is an incurable, terminal, and degenerative disease first described by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in 1906. The disease is, of course, named for him. It is typically diagnosed in people over the age of sixty-five (65) years of age, but can also be found in people younger than that. In those suffering Alzheimer's before the age of 65 it is called early-onset Alzheimer's.

As of September 2009, this number of reported cases worldwide is thought to be thirty-five million (35,000,000) persons. Projections are that by 2050 one hundred seven million (107,000,000) people will suffer from Alzheimer's.

Symptoms
As with many other diseases, Alzheimer's disease is distinct for every sufferer. Despite this there are many shared symptoms.

Near-Term Symptoms:

  • Short-Term Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Mood swings

Chronic Symptoms:

  • Language difficulties
  • Long-term memory loss
  • Social withdrawal

Long-Term Symptoms include:

  • Loss of bodily functions leading to death

Since each individual case of AD is unique, a prognosis is difficult if not impossible to determine. It is known that AD develops for an indeterminate period of time before becoming fully apparent and can advance unnoticed for years.

The mean life expectancy following diagnosis is approximately seven (7) years. This is highly variable though since each individual case is unique. Only three (3%) percent of individuals diagnosed with AD live more than fourteen years after diagnosis.

Brain Slice Comparison. Right: Normal Brain. Left: Alzheimer's Affacted Brain. Image Source Wikicommons.
Brain Slice Comparison. Right: Normal Brain. Left: Alzheimer's Affacted Brain. Image Source Wikicommons.

Causes and Treatment of Alzheimer's Disease

In truth, the cause and progression of AD is not known. Research points to plaques and tangles in the neurons in the brain. But the root cause of these anomalies is not known.

Current treatments only offer relief from the symptoms, but no cure. To date the progression of the disease may be slowed, but a decline is inevitable. Though there are currently five hundred (500) treatment trials under investigation, none can seen as definitive in slowing or halting the advance of AD.

Life-style habits have been proposed for prevention of AD, but there is a lack of quantifiable evidence that any of these life-style changes have a lasting effect. Among these recommendations are:

These recommendations are seen as both preventative and effective in case management. Because there is no known cure for AD patient management is the primary focus.

Patient management is the primary role of the main caregiver, duties often taken up by a spouse or close relative. In developed countries AD is one of the most costly diseases to manage. Management of the patient often impacts the social, psychological, physical, and economic elements of the caregiver.

One aspect of AD progression is that communication becomes a challenge.Words, thought processes, and language skills will be forgotten. Words the patient used to understand and recognize will sound like nonsense. Long term memories become clouded or are lost forever.

This often leads the AD sufferer to anger and agitation. They will speak less often or in some cases go mute. Expression will become nearly impossible.

Art Therapy

Participatory

Recent research involving art and Alzheimer's disease may prove useful.

Art has long been known as a form of symbolic communication. Art therapy practitioners apply this knowledge by encouraging AD sufferers to paint. This may promote interpretive and expressive abilities that the patient has otherwise lost the ability to express. e.g. the AD victim is encouraged to communicate through their art.

This form of therapy has been able to demonstrate a new avenue of communication, but also seems to help AD sufferers with concentration. The renewed concentration, in turn, seems to reduce anxiety, and aid in the reduction of mood swings and irritability.

It was also found that when AD patients are encouraged to paint in group settings there tends to be more social interaction.

Appreciation

It has also been shown that AD sufferers who visit a museum once a week also benefit. Health-care workers liken the experience to a weekly dose of drug therapy where the patient's communication and social skills are rejuvenated by the mere experience of viewing art. Often AD sufferers, when asked about viewing a particular painting or drawing, find themselves able to express a memory or remembrance of a pleasurable event.

This has lead some researchers to speculate that victims of AD don't really lose memories, but are somehow prevented from recalling them.

Comments

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  • elayne001 profile image

    Elayne 

    8 years ago from Rocky Mountains

    Art and music seem to cure a lot of ailments. As an artist, it is very therapeutic to do and to behold.

  • LiamBean profile imageAUTHOR

    LiamBean 

    8 years ago from Los Angeles, Calilfornia

    Timothy: Thanks for reading and good point. But without the clinical research "signposts" to a cure might be missed. I'm pretty sure scientists already have an idea what is causing the tangles and plaques mentioned, but are looking for something that will not only point to the cause, but the cure.

  • Timothy Donnelly profile image

    Timothy Donnelly 

    8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Family members are important in the lives of people who suffer with the onset of Alzheimer's. I believe the best way to help the afflicted is to engage them patiently and creatively whenever possible - in a loving way, not a clinical one. I think they respond more successfully with a wise shepherd and cooperating flock, so to speak.

  • profile image

    directsaurabh 

    8 years ago

    Art is sometimes great healer. Thanks for info

  • LiamBean profile imageAUTHOR

    LiamBean 

    8 years ago from Los Angeles, Calilfornia

    Thanks for reading surfzen. Oh, I'm very well aware of the dementia, but I tried to couch that in a choice of words such as "anxiety", "confusion" and "aggression."

    Also, since the thrust of the article is art as therapy I didn't concentrate on the symptoms quite that hard. After all, anyone who is a caregiver is very familiar.

    I'm also familiar with aricept. Yes, it does slow the progression, but that's about it. You see the relative I mention above was a close member of the family. I can't imagine what his wife went through considering what I saw when I saw him. It was nightmarish.

    I think it's admirable what you are doing. There has to be someone in society willing to take on the "impossible" or "unbearable."

    I have an odd feeling, and I can't justify it to be honest, that a cure will be found in the next five years. Call it a hunch.

  • profile image

    surfzen 

    8 years ago

    Hi Liam,

    I am an Alzheimer's caregiver. You may have heard of Sunrise, one of America's premier assisted living facilities specializing in residents with memory issues. They are all on Aricept which slows the progress of this horrible disease. What you don't mention is the dementia that accompanies Alzheimers. When a patient can't find keys or a comb or belt or a particular article of clothing, they will accuse someone of plotting against them or stealing or poisoning them. So medications to fight paranoid schizophrenia are prescribed. I do see patients who respond to art therapy but unfortunately they all go from stage one to two to three and then, bye bye. It is awful. My guy is 81 and we go to the YMCA or to my pool and jacuzzi 3 days a week and work out. He gave up on the art but I am happy to say that since January he is the heatlthiest guy in the place. But can you imagine living in constant mental anguish 24/7/365. That is what it is. We need a cure. Fortunately I have never been accused by my patient. I don't know what I would do if it ever happened. I am almost 70 but I will stick by him to the end.

  • LiamBean profile imageAUTHOR

    LiamBean 

    8 years ago from Los Angeles, Calilfornia

    Thanks Katrika. I think so too, but I'm biased.

  • kartika damon profile image

    kartika damon 

    8 years ago from Fairfield, Iowa

    Excellent information - art is a great healer! Kartika

  • LiamBean profile imageAUTHOR

    LiamBean 

    8 years ago from Los Angeles, Calilfornia

    Thanks Peg! I've had at least one case of it in my family.

    When a relative's husband died, and he was a sufferer, she faced the death with both relief and sadness. His illness lasted for eleven years, each year harder than the previous, until he finally ended up in a nursing home. She mourned what she lost in him, but so much was lost so early on that I suspect her greatest emotion was guilt over feeling relief.

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 

    8 years ago from Dallas, Texas

    Interesting facts on a disease whose cause is unknown. Your hub was enlightening and still easy to read. Thanks for an insightful look into this illness. Good facts to know.

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