How do You Die from Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's disease affects around 4.5 million people in the United States. It most often occurs in people over 60 years old, but rarely it may occur in younger people. It starts as a low level of forgetfulness and proceeds to loss of ability to communicate or care for yourself. You may ask the question, “How do you die from Alzheimer's?” The answer comes with the stages of Alzheimer's disease and how it progresses. Certain things occur in the body that can affect your physical functions. This article will explain these things and tips for helping care for a loved one living with the disease.

How do You Die from Alzheimer's?

The cause of death is not usually directly related to the actual disease. Instead, it's more related to complications that arise from Alzheimer's disease. 

When you suffer from Alzheimer's you are actually experiencing damage to essential nerves in your brain. This can stop the functions of walking, swallowing food and water, elimination of bowel and bladder, and keeping the lungs clear. The biggest complication that can kill people is a type of pneumonia from inhaling fluids. A comprehensive list of complications are as follows:

1. Aspiration Pneumonia

Alzheimer's can affect your ability to swallow food and fluids. This can cause food and fluids to get into your lungs. The biggest initial risk of this happening is choking. If you are unable to cough up what went into your lungs, it can grow bacteria and turn into a pneumonia infection. If not treated quickly with antibiotics, it can kill you.

2. Malnutrition

People with later stage Alzheimer's tend to stop eating and develop a form of anorexia. They will refuse foods leading to malnutrition. This may also be attributed to the inability to swallow properly, leading to malnutrition that can cause death.

3. Sepsis/Blood Infection

How do you die from Alzheimer's? Complications such as blood infection may cause death. People with Alzheimer's lose the ability to communicate. The most common cause of sepsis or bloodstream infection is a urinary tract infection. These can cause burning with urination and without the ability to communicate that, the infection can be persistent for a long period of time. If it spreads to the kidneys, it will enter the blood stream and cause sepsis.

4. Falls

As the nerves shut down the ability to walk or move around safely, falls can occur. You may not realize that your legs don't work as well as before and fall. There is also a lack of rational thinking and patients with Alzheimer's may get into situations that are dangerous i.e. stairs, pools, or walking into busy roadways. Any of these situations can lead to death. Even a simple fall at home can lead to a head injury or broken hip and cause death.

5. Dehydration

It is very common for people with Alzheimer's to refuse anything to drink. This may be due to emotional upset, apathy, or fear of aspiration. Dehydration can actually make you very sick quickly under certain conditions including, heat, illness, or other health conditions. Many Alzheimer's patients still live at home with family. Family should be aware of how much you drink and report less fluid intake to the doctor right away.

6. Skin Ulcers

Alzheimer's decreases movement and walking. This may make you sit in one spot or lay on one side for long periods of time. When this happens, the blood flow to the skin is decreased and causes it to break down and the tissue begins to die off. This causes bedsores that bacteria can enter and cause infection. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the rest of the body and be fatal.

What Can Be Done to Help?

As Alzheimer's progresses into the later stages, a person may need more care than previously. If you have asked, "How do you die from Alzheimer's?" and found your answer, the following tips can prevent safety issues and may even help them live longer with Alzheimer's disease:

1. Communication

You will need to modify the way you communicate with a person with Alzheimer's. As the cognitive function declines, there may be poor word recall and frustration with not being able to understand others. Some tips to help are:

  • Re-orient to person, time, and place (Good morning, mom. Its Monday June 23, 2106. It's time to go to your kitchen table for breakfast)
  • Never talk down to them
  • Use literal instruction
  • Point to things you are talking about
  • Try to avoid questions that don't have direct answers

2. Activities

It will become increasingly difficult to keep up with a normal daily schedule. Memory and the ability to think through tasks will fade. A good structure can help alleviate issues with daily activity. Here are some tips:

  • Put each day's schedule on paper
  • Try to include daily activities your loved one is used to doing i.e. working in the garden, going for a walk, or visiting the senior center
  • Break activities into small segments

3. Eating

Keeping times for eating as simple as possible will prevent nutrition that is needed from becoming overwhelming. If swallowing becomes a problem, see a speech therapist for a swallowing evaluation to prevent aspiration. These tips will help prevent malnutrition:

  • Use high nutrition drinks that contain protein and vitamins
  • Offer fluids with every meal and throughout the day
  • Keep place settings simple. Set the table with only what is needed.
  • Serve side-dishes, meats, and veggies one at a time, not on the same plate
  • If food is refused, save it for a snack later to help balance nutrition

4. Safety

Prepare for any safety issues as the disease progresses. Keep in mind they may wonder if allowed outside alone. Falls are an increased risk. Here are some tips to improve safety in the home:

  •  Keep cords hidden away from walking areas
  • Use good lighting in dark areas of the house
  • Use a baby gate in front of stairs
  • Always take your loved one for a walk outside together

5. Skin Care and Infection Control

Skin breakdown can lead to infections that can transfer into the bloodstream. Some tips for good skin care:

  • Keep skin clean and dry
  • Turn them to a different side every two hours
  • Have them change positions when sitting in a chair
  • Get them up walking whenever possible
  • Watch for signs of urinary tract infection and treat promptly (blood in urine, low urine output, heavy odor)
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