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Published by: jefroc on Apr 02, 2010
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Chapter 60: Nursing Management: Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

DEMENTIA • Dementia is a syndrome characterized by dysfunction or loss of memory, orientation, attention, language, judgment, and reasoning. Personality changes and behavioral problems such as agitation, delusions, and hallucinations may result. • The two most common causes of dementia are neurodegenerative conditions (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease) and vascular disorders. Vascular dementia, also called multiinfarct dementia, is the loss of cognitive function resulting from ischemic, ischemic-hypoxic, or hemorrhagic brain lesions caused by cardiovascular disease. Depending on the cause of the dementia, the onset of symptoms may be insidious and gradual or more abrupt. Often dementia associated with neurologic degeneration is gradual and progressive over time. Regardless of the cause of dementia, the initial symptoms are related to changes in cognitive functioning. Patients may have complaints of memory loss, mild disorientation, and/or trouble with words and numbers. An important first step in the diagnosis of dementia is a thorough medical, neurologic, and psychologic history. Also, mental status testing is an important component of the patient evaluation. Depression is often mistaken for dementia in older adults, and, conversely, dementia for depression.

MILD COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT • Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a state of cognitive functioning that is below defined norms, yet does not meet the criteria for dementia. • • Causes of MCI may include stress, anxiety, depression, or physical illness. The nurse caring for the patient with MCI must recognize the importance of monitoring the patient for changes in memory and thinking skills that would indicate a worsening of symptoms or a progression to dementia.

ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE • Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a chronic, progressive, degenerative disease of the brain. It is the most common form of dementia. • • The exact etiology of AD is unknown. Similar to other forms of dementia, age is the most important risk factor for developing AD. Characteristic findings of AD relate to changes in the brain’s structure and function: (1) amyloid plaques, (2) neurofibrillary tangles, and (3) loss of connections between cells and cell death. Multiple genetic factors have been linked to the development of AD. Inflammation is also believed to contribute to AD.

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The manifestations of AD can be categorized similar to those for dementia as mild, moderate, and late. An initial sign of AD is a subtle deterioration in memory. With progression of AD, additional cognitive impairments are noted, including dysphasia, apraxia, visual agnosia, and dysgraphia. The diagnosis of AD is primarily a diagnosis of exclusion. No single clinical test can be used to diagnose AD. At this time there is no cure for AD. The collaborative management of AD is aimed at (1) improving or controlling decline in cognition, and (2) controlling the undesirable behavioral manifestations that the patient may exhibit. The diagnosis of AD is traumatic for both the patient and the family. It is not unusual for the patient to respond with depression, denial, anxiety and fear, isolation, and feelings of loss. The nurse is in an important position to assess for depression and suicidal ideation. Currently, family members and friends care for the majority of individuals with AD in their homes. Others with AD reside in various facilities, including long-term care and assisted living facilities. Regardless of the setting, the severity of the problems and the amount of nursing care intensify over time. As the patient with AD progresses to the late stages (severe impairment) of AD, there is increased difficulty with the most basic functions, including walking and talking. Total care is required. Behavioral problems occur in about 90% of patients with AD. These problems include repetitiveness, delusions, illusions, hallucinations, agitation, aggression, altered sleeping patterns, wandering, and resisting care. Nursing strategies that address difficult behavior include redirection, distraction, and reassurance. A specific type of agitation is termed sundowning, in which the patient becomes more confused and agitated in the late afternoon or evening. Behaviors commonly exhibited include agitation, aggressiveness, wandering, resistance to redirection, and increased verbal activity such as yelling. The person with AD is at risk for problems related to personal safety. These risks include injury from falls, injury from ingesting dangerous substances, wandering, injury to others and self with sharp objects, fire or burns, and inability to respond to crisis situations. Wandering is a major concern for caregivers. As with other behaviors, the nurse should observe for factors or events that may precipitate wandering. Loss of interest in food and decreased ability to feed self, as well as comorbid conditions, can result in significant nutritional deficiencies in the patient with AD. Pureed foods, thickened liquids, and nutritional supplements can be used when chewing and swallowing become problematic for the patient. Urinary tract infection and pneumonia are the most common infections to occur in patients with AD. Such infections are ultimately the cause of death in many patients with AD.

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During the middle and late stages of AD, urinary and fecal incontinence lead to increased need for nursing care. AD is a disease that disrupts all aspects of personal and family life. Caregivers exhibit adverse consequences relating to their employment and to their emotional and physical health, which then results in family conflict and caregiver strain. The nurse should work with the caregiver to assess stressors and to identify coping strategies to reduce the burden of caregiving.

OTHER NEURODEGENERATIVE DISEASES • Lewy body dementia is a condition characterized by the presence of Lewy bodies (intraneural cytoplasmic inclusions) in the brainstem and cortex. A common cause of dementia, it is often unrecognized by health care providers. • • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare and fatal brain disorder thought to be caused by a prion protein. A prion is a small infectious pathogen containing protein but lacking nucleic acids. Pick’s disease, a type of frontotemporal dementia, is a rare brain disorder characterized by disturbances in behavior, sleep, personality, and eventually memory. The major distinguishing characteristic between these disorders and AD is marked symmetric lobar atrophy of the temporal and/or frontal lobes. Normal pressure hydrocephalus is an uncommon disorder characterized by an obstruction in the flow of CSF, which causes a buildup of this fluid in the brain.

DELIRIUM • Delirium, a state of temporary but acute mental confusion, is a common, life-threatening, and possibly preventable syndrome in older adults. • • Clinically, delirium is rarely caused by a single factor. It is often the result of the interaction of the patient’s underlying condition with a precipitating event. Acute delirium occurs frequently in hospitalized older adults. This transient condition is characterized by disorganized thinking, difficulty in concentrating, and sensory misperceptions that last from 1 to 7 days. Manifestations of delirium are sometimes confused with dementia. A key distinction between delirium and dementia is that the person who exhibits sudden cognitive impairment, disorientation, or clouded sensorium is more likely to have delirium rather than dementia. In caring for the patient with delirium, the roles of the nurse include prevention, early recognition, and treatment. Prevention of delirium involves recognition of high risk patients. Care of the patient with delirium is focused on eliminating precipitating factors. If it is druginduced, medications are discontinued. It is important to keep in mind that delirium can also accompany drug and alcohol withdrawal. Care of the patient experiencing delirium includes protecting the patient from harm. Priority is given to creating a calm and safe environment.

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Comprehensive, multicomponent interventions to prevent delirium are the most effective and should be implemented through institutional-based programs that are interdisciplinary.

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