Memory loss is commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease. However, a variety of physical changes occur to the body during the disease process. Physical effects begin to show during the middle stages of the disease, often within two years of diagnosis, and become more prominent during the end stages of the condition. Alzheimer’s is an incurable, progressive disease 1. It is important to remember each Alzheimer’s patient is different, and no two will show physical changes the same way. As physical changes increase, care becomes more physically challenging and time-consuming.
Mobility and Movement
Immobility and the inability to stay coordinated are the initial physical symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Muscles become rigid and tremors are noticeable. Using mobility devices, such as canes or walkers, may be necessary to avoid falls. An Alzheimer’s patient needs frequent reminders to use mobility devices. During the late stages of Alzheimer’s, mobility is severely restricted. A person often requires a wheel chair for mobility and eventually becomes totally bed-bound. Muscles become contracted. A person will lose the ability to smile and become completely reliable on care staff for repositioning to avoid bedsores.
Incontinence is the inability to control urine and bowel functions. The first episodes of incontinence are often not due to physical changes, but rather because the Alzheimer’s patient is unable to locate a bathroom, remove clothing appropriately or find assistance. A toileting program, bringing the patient to the restroom every one to two hours, may aid in stopping some incontinence issues. Still, total loss of bowel and bladder control is unavoidable in the late-middle and end stages of the disease.
Apraxia is defined as the impairment to perform pre-programmed motor skills. Initial loss of skills includes the inability to perform basic daily skills. A person with Alzheimer’s is unable to bathe himself, brush his teeth or feed himself. Closely related to body changes are instinctive physical skills lost in the late or end stages of the disease. These instinctive skills include basic functions of chewing, swallowing and speaking. The brain is unable to coordinate the basic functions of swallowing and breathing. Aspirating liquids or food into the lungs is a danger—many Alzheimer’s victims develop aspiration pneumonia during the late stage of the disease.
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