Alzheimer’s affects 5.2 million Americans—1 in 9 people aged 65 and older have it.

This year, add mental wellness to your Thanksgiving list

11-16-wellness_alzheimers_web1The holidays can sometimes be a stressful time of year, especially for families who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). There are, however, ways to make the season a more enjoyable time for family gatherings. A few doctor recommendations may enhance your quality time together this Thanksgiving—so you can spend more time being thankful for each other.

Try to make activities simple, structured, supervised, and brief for AD sufferers. Do not force a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s to participate in any activity. “People with dementia need a safe, quiet, and orderly environment,” explains Dr. Lei Lu, a clinical neuropsychologist at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. Neuropsychology studies how the brain affects behavior.

Dr. Lu points out that AD patients interact better in smaller groups, and the rule of memory is “first in, last out.”

AD sufferers remember their distant past better than recent events. Therefore, it’s best to avoid general questions in conversation and instead ask specifics such as “Who was your best friend in school?” If your loved one doesn’t remember, it’s best to let that person know it’s okay. Avoid correcting patients if they say something inaccurate. You should never make a loved one feel overwhelmed. Consider how much he or she is able or willing to speak. Dr. Lu recommends focusing on topics that the person was previously interested in, rather than asking about health problems.

Want to lower your risk for dementia? Make physical activity, social interaction, healthy eating, and mental stimulation part of your healthy lifestyle. “Clinical studies show that exercise improves cognitive function and may increase brain volume. Moderate exercise can slow brain aging by as much as ten years,” Dr. Fang concludes. So why wait for New Year’s to consider resolutions? Thanksgiving may be the perfect time to decide on healthy habits that will add wellness to your list of things that you are thankful for.

If your family enjoys board games, it’s best to consider the AD patient’s favorites as well as the severity of the condition. Games should not be complicated, but can still be intellectually stimulating—try things such as cards or dominoes. While watching sports may be your family’s favorite pastime, some AD patients could be frightened by its pace and noise. Activities that allow self-expression are good choices, like painting, drawing, or making music.

Taking a short walk together, praying, or singing can also be beneficial. “Providing frequent rest periods is important,” Dr. Lu states. 

While we all may forget where we put our keys, garage door opener, or cell phone from time to time, it’s important not to dismiss this type of behavior if it’s frequent. Memory loss is a common AD warning sign, specifically when it deals with recent events. “Symptoms include trouble remembering new information, balancing a checkbook, paying bills, forgetting what we wanted to say, getting lost in familiar places, coping poorly with unexpected events, and behavioral changes,” Dr. Fang explains. Early warning signs also include impaired navigational skills, so Dr. Fang states that driving should be avoided. Later effects of the disease include a decline in language function. The most common age group for dementia is 65 years and older.


Holiday family gatherings may also be an ideal time to determine whether a loved one with memory loss or disorientation may need medical attention if he or she has not seen a doctor for this condition. Memory loss and confusion are often caused by medical problems other than AD. “Infections, depression, medication side effects, electrolyte imbalance, uncontrolled diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, head trauma, intracranial bleeding, seizure, and nutritional problems may contribute to dementia,” states Dr. Xiang Fang, a board-certified neurologist at UTMB Galveston. 

Life-threatening conditions may result if treatment is delayed. However, it’s important to be able to distinguish normal cognitive decline due to aging from Alzheimer’s disease.  “Aging related decline deals with difficulties in learning new information, but not memory retention. Normal cognitive decline usually does not affect daily function,” Dr. Fang says.

AD has no cure, but there are medications that improve cognition and overall function for people with Alzheimer’s. Pharmaceuticals help treat AD symptoms such as behavioral changes, depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping. Exercise and physical or occupational therapy may help maintain memory as well as high cognitive and physical function. Social support, peer group activity, and safety counseling have also been effective in helping patients.

Remember that early diagnosis is an important factor for effective treatment. Since most patients with dementia do not complain of memory loss, family members should carefully watch for signs. Keeping some of these tips in mind should help your Thanksgiving truly be a time for giving thanks. As always, readers are encouraged to consult their physicians with specific questions or concerns.

By Perla Sarabia Johnson

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