For people with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers, the COVID-19 pandemic creates new everyday challenges. Like most other dementias, Alzheimer’s disease affects mostly people over the age of 65, who are some of the most vulnerable in the face of the new pandemic.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the links between COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s disease. Also, we’ll explore some of the ways in which people with dementia and their caregivers may mitigate the risks and challenges they are bound to encounter during these difficult times.
Are People with Alzheimer’s Disease More at Risk of Catching COVID-19?
Not necessarily. There’s no medical evidence so far to suggest that having Alzheimer’s disease predisposes someone to develop COVID-19. However, having dementia at an advanced stage may indirectly increase the risk of becoming ill with the novel coronavirus. That’s because people with dementia may have difficulties observing social distancing and maintaining adequate cleanliness levels. For example, they may forget to wash their hands after coming home from a walk.
Can COVID-19 Cause Dementia?
Again, so far there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 increases the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in particular. As a relatively new disease, the long-term effects of COVID-19 remain to be observed.
However, COVID-19 affects people with Alzheimer’s disease in other ways. As already noted, it impacts their ability to comply with protective measures. It may also affect the availability of the care that they so often need, especially during the latter stages of the disease.
These and other issues, such as the vulnerability of people with dementia living in homes for the elderly in the face of the virus, raise serious concerns for everyone—family, caregivers, nurses, and doctors. With so many hospitals burdened by surges of COVID-19 patients, finding optimal solutions for these people with Alzheimer’s disease remains difficult.
Can COVID-19 Make Dementia Worse?
The novel coronavirus affects mostly the lungs. While there have been some reports of its negative effect on the brain and the central nervous system, most notably losing the sense of smell, the coronavirus doesn’t directly worsen dementia symptoms. But that’s only half the truth. Social distancing and self-isolation can indirectly aggravate a person’s dementia symptoms. The same can be said for people who end up hospitalized because of the virus.
The bottom line is that while certain preexisting conditions are known to worsen coronavirus symptoms—most notably heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and obesity—having dementia does not appear to directly influence the course of the condition.
COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms
People with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia often have memory problems. They may not be able to recall what happened a short while ago. This can make it difficult for them to realize that they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
What makes matters worse is that the novel coronavirus may start with mild symptoms that can pass unnoticed for days. For a person with advanced dementia who cannot describe his or her symptoms, these may not become obvious to caregivers until they progress. And by the time that happens, the risk grows that the person may spread the disease to others without realizing it.
For people with Alzheimer’s disease, being admitted to hospital with COVID-19 symptoms can be even more difficult than for other patients. They may have a hard time understanding their unfamiliar surroundings and the absence of their loved ones or caregivers. They may experience severe feelings of loneliness and fright. Communication difficulties can further isolate them.
COVID-19 in Dementia Patients
People with Alzheimer’s disease may experience a deterioration of their condition and quality of life as a result of the far-reaching impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. During these challenging times, people with Alzheimer’s disease may have to deal with one or more of the following issues:
- Disruption in their normal routine, which may lead to poor eating habits, sleep disturbances, and behavior changes.
- There is a higher risk of depression caused by family disruptions and the inability to take walks or enjoy the outdoors.
- Difficulties understanding social distancing or the use of protective clothing increase feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- There is a higher risk of developing COVID-19 because of greater difficulties in maintaining personal hygiene and taking protective measures.
In addition to these, the COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately also disrupted many Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials. The search for better Alzheimer’s disease treatment options and possibly a cure has been brought to a halt.
The effect of COVID-19 on Alzheimer’s research is likely more than temporary. At least some pharmaceutical companies are shifting their attention from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Nevertheless, many trials, including some of the most promising, will likely resume in the near future.
Dementia Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Whether you care for someone with dementia or have someone in the family who suffers from the condition, the following tips on dementia care during the COVID-19 pandemic can prove useful. Not only can they help protect vulnerable dementia patients, but they can also improve the quality of their life.
- Use reminders so that he or she will wash her hands with soap for at least 20 seconds. Because dementia causes memory lapses, a person with this condition may constantly forget to wash his or her hands.
- Provide an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (60%) for personal hygiene if the person with Alzheimer’s disease has difficulties washing with soap.
- Minimize trips to the pharmacy by keeping a reasonable stock of prescription medicines.
- Create a backup plan if the main caregiver becomes sick with the coronavirus. In other words, have a stand-in.
- If a paid health care professional provides Alzheimer’s disease care services in your home, ensure that they wash their hands after arrival and maintain proper hygiene. Ensure also that they wear a face mask if they are tending to an elderly person with Alzheimer’s disease.
- If your job requires you to go outside often, avoid close contact with the person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
- If the person is in a residential facility, call to ask about the security measures in place. If you are not happy with what you hear, moving the person to another facility or bringing them home may help, but in most cases, it should only be a last resort option because of the risks it creates for everyone.
COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s Disease: The Wrap Up
For people with Alzheimer’s disease, the combined effect of the COVID-19 pandemic may increase the risk of early institutionalization as well as lead to a sharper decline in their well-being. However, while the challenges remain, it’s important to recognize that this could also be an opportunity for them to spend more time with their families.
People suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are among the most affected groups of individuals. Mentally and physically, they may have to face new challenges every day that sap their energy and leave them confused, lonely, and with a higher risk of depression.
However, dementia is not one of the conditions that increases the risk of suffering from severe COVID-19 symptoms. Even if an elderly person who has Alzheimer’s gets the novel coronavirus, they still have a good chance of making a full recovery. It can be some comfort to know that the virus that has brought the world to a standstill doesn’t hit people with Alzheimer’s disease harder than other categories of people.