King George III was the monarch of England from 1760 to 1801 and the first King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1801 until his death in 1820.
For the United States of America, King George III played a prominent role in both establishing colonies here and instituting the unpopular policies, particularly with regard to taxation, that caused the colonies to rebel, declare their independence from England in 1776, and led to the Revolutionary War that handed the British an unthinkable defeat.
He was known both in England and in the colonies as “Mad King George.”
King George III came to the throne in 1760 at the age of 22, but as early as 1765, he showed signs of cognitive impairment. Although his cognitive decline was gradual and his “mad” bouts were episodic for the next 30 years, King George III showed every sign of neurological decline associated with dementia, as the times when he was completely incapacitated increased and worsened during those 30 years.
King George III’s neurological condition was advanced enough by 1788 that Parliament passed a regency bill to be able to quickly and immediately hand the reins of government over to his son, George IV, at any time.
Although King George III managed to hold on to power in name only for another 23 years, his dementia was so pronounced by 1801 that he was largely unable to govern.
More likely than not, King George III had frontotemporal dementia (an early-onset dementia) and that was responsible for the erratic and irrational behavior that characterized his “madnesses” that are recorded in both the histories of England and the United States.
It is also entirely possible that King George III had developed other types of dementia as he aged. Some of the historical accounts of his later years suggest that King George III also had vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
One of the interesting things that occurred to me is the question of whether the United States of America would have ever existed as an independent country if King George III had not had frontotemporal dementia.
While it’s conceivable that at some point the United States would have sought independence as a nation in its own right, you can’t help but wonder if it might have been delayed for decades or even a century or more and it might have been under more peaceable conditions had King George III not been on the throne.
Dementias affect everything and dementias change everything.
For most of people, the sphere of influence affected and changed is relatively small.
In the case of King George III, it affected and changed the world.
There are several types of common early-onset dementias. Early-onset dementias are categorized as dementias where the onset of symptoms is prior to age 65. These dementias can occur as early as the 30’s, but more typically become symptomatic in the 40’s and 50’s.
Early-onset dementias, unfortunately, are still off the main grid for medical staff – a classic instance of fixed expectations that dementias won’t be an issue for a person until after age 65 – and our loved who are diagnosed with early-on dementias face challenges that our older loved ones who are suffering with these diseases don’t face. These include:
Difficulty getting a correct diagnosis
Loss of employment and income
Difficulty getting Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicaid, and other employment-related disability insurance
Loss of health insurance and high-out-of-pocket costs for medical care
High out-of-pocket costs for long-term care
Lack of appropriate medical care, residential care, and community services (all of these are geared toward an older population)
Early-onset dementias typically are harder to diagnose because other than the dementia systems, sufferers are usually healthy, active, and aware there is a problem.
Additionally, the symptoms of early-onset dementias usually don’t have memory impairment as the predominant feature. Most often, behavioral and personality changes occur first, so usually the first type of treatment is psychiatric instead of neurological.
The causes of early onset-dementias fall into three categories: random, genetic, and lifestyle.
Random early-onset dementias are just that. There’s no concrete link to a cause. My opinion is that few of these in this category are actually random, but the causative issue(s) have not been identified yet.
Genetics plays an important role in certain early-onset dementias (and, although the scientific community has overlooked or disregarded the familial aspect of elder-onset dementias, it appears very likely, from observation, that if there’s a family history of elder-onset dementias, there may be a genetic predisposition for development of elder-onset dementias in subsequent generations).
Three genes are known to have mutations in the case of some sufferers of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type (symptoms related to these genetic mutations usually begin in the 30’s and 40’s):
Amyloid precursor protein gene (APP) on chromosome 21
At least 1/3 of all sufferers diagnosis with early-onset dementia have Alzheimer’s Disease (remember that Alzheimer’s Disease is a type of dementia, but is not inclusive of all types of dementia, just as all photocopiers are not Xerox photocopiers and all facial tissues are not Kleenex facial tissues).
This type of early-onset dementia is more common in women than men. Once symptoms appear, the duration of the disease averages eight years.
A recent example is the 2011 diagnosis of former University of Tennessee women’s head basketball coach, Pat Summit, who was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, at age 59. Coach Summitt stayed with the team one more season, but was not actively coaching that season.
Coach Summitt retired in 2012 and has begun the Pat Summit Foundation to raise Alzheimer’s Disease awareness.
The novel, Still Alice, written by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, gives a scientific, compassionate and compelling look from the inside out of a 50-year-old Harvard psychology professor as early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type enters and progresses through her life.
Since the publication of Still Alice in 2007, Genova has continued her work with bringing the neuroscience of all types of dementias in the same compassionate and compelling style of her first novel through subsequent books and through documentaries produced with her husband, who is a filmmaker.
The second most common type of early-onset dementia is vascular dementia. Vascular dementia can occur because of:
Multiple cortical infarcts (small areas of tissue that have died from the lack a blood supply) that are most often caused by transient ischemic attacks (TIA’s) or silent strokes and characterized by stepwise deterioration of cognitive function
Small-vessel disease, resulting in a more subtle decline of cognitive function
Cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy (CADASIL)
Rare cause of early-onset subcortical strokes and dementia
Caused by a mutation of Notch 3 gene on chromosome 19
MRI shows diffuse white matter lesions on the cerebral hemispheres, especially in the anterior temporal lobes and external capsules
With early-onset vascular dementia, there are usually lifestyle factors involved such as uncontrolled or undetected high blood pressure and an unhealthy diet. Recent scientific research has also linked high cholesterol levels with the development of vascular dementia.
The third most common type of early-onset dementia is frontotemperal dementia (FTD), also known as Pick’s Disease, which affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. FTD usually has an onset between the ages of 45 and 65. Its average duration is eight years.
There are three types of FTD: behavioral variant FTD, semantic dementia, and primary progressive (also known as progressive nonfluent) aphasia.
In about half the cases of FTD, there is a positive family history for the disease, indicating a probable genetic link (although researchers have not yet identified the genetic mutation).
FTD can co-occur with motor neuron diseases (ALS, also known as Lou Gerhig’s Disease, is an example of a motor neuron disease), but only about 10% of sufferers of only motor neuron diseases develop dementia, resulting in a very aggressive course of the illness.
FTD presents differently from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease and early-onset vascular dementia because the first symptoms involve changes in personality and social conduct while memory, perception, and visuospatial skills remain unchanged.
The most common indicators are:
Speech and language difficulties
As FTD progresses, other symptoms become apparent:
Difficulty behaving appropriately in new and unfamiliar situations
Loss in inhibitions (disrobing is not uncommon)
Loss of social skills
Executive function deficits
Decreased verbal fluency
Compulsive or repetitive behavior
Lack of insight
Inappropriate sexual behavior
The semantic dementia form of FTD includes symptoms of:
Difficulty with correctly naming objects (people, places, and things)
Impaired understanding of the meaning of words
Inability to understand substitute words
However, in this form of FTD, speech remains fluent and cognition remains intact. MRI scans show more atrophy of the anterior temporal lobe than the posterior temporal lobe.
The primary progressive (progressive nonfluent) aphasia form of FTD is characterized by:
Progressive decline in all language skills, with no other cognitive deficits
Increased difficulty with speech and speaking (by the end of the disease, most sufferers don’t speak at all)
Speech and speaking is not fluent and requires a great deal of effort
MRI scans show predominant atrophy of the left perisylvian region of the temporal lobe.
The fourth most common type of early-onset dementia is Lewy Body dementia. I’ve included the link to my post about Lewy Body dementia for a full description, but will include a brief summary of the dementia’s primary symptoms:
The fifth most common type of early-onset dementia is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (alcohol-related dementia). This is a lifestyle dementia, brought on by long-term, heavy alcohol consumption.
Characteristics of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome include:
Damage to the limbic structures and frontal lobes
Executive functioning impairment
Autobiographical memory is frequently affected resulting in confabulation (making up stories)
Memory loss stops where it is when drinking stops (damage already done remains)
As shown by the MRI scan above, there is general cortical atrophy along with damage to the frontal, parietal and cingulated regions of the brain, with the majority of the damage occurring in the frontal lobe.
There are two other less common types of early-onset dementia that we’ll discuss.
Everyone is born with this gene. However, in Huntington’s Disease, an inherited mutated copy of this gene (on chromosome 4), produces a defective form of the huntingtin protein that causes degeneration and death of the neurons, especially in the center of the brain.
Because this gene is a dominant gene (as opposed to a recessive gene), everyone who inherits the mutated copy of the gene will, at some point, develop Huntington’s Disease.
Symptoms typically appear between ages 30 and 50, but it can begin at a very young age or appear in the very elderly. Primary symptoms include:
Lack of muscle coordination in the arms, legs, head, face and upper body
Progressive decline in thinking and reasoning skills, including memory, concentration, judgment and the ability to plan and organize
Mood disturbances, including depression, anxiety, anger, and irritability
The last type of early-onset dementia, which is extremely rare, is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). CJD is characterized by rapid neurological degeneration. It is always fatal, and death usually occurs within six months to a year of onset.
CJD belongs to a class of human and animal diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), because the infected brain looks like a sponge. The average age of onset for CJD is 60.
“Mad Cow Disease” is the bovine equivalent of CJD (although it tends to affect younger people, with the average age of onset being 26).
There are three types of CJD:
Sporadic (no known cause) – accounts for about 90% of cases
Inherited (family history of the disease) – accounts for 5-10% of cases
Acquired (transmitted by exposure to brain or nervous system tissue, usually through certain medical procedure) – accounts for less than 1% of cases
The symptoms of CJD include:
Rapidly progressive dementia
Problems with muscular coordination
Personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking
As CJD progresses, mental impairment becomes severe. Sufferers often develop involuntary muscle jerks (myoclonus), and they may go blind.
Eventually, they lose the ability to move and speak and become comatose. Pneumonia and other infections often occur as well, and they generally end in death.
This post will talk about how physical health – both preexisting conditions and and conditions that arise concurrently with or as a result of cognitive impairment and neurological damage – can be one of the most continuous and more serious sources of stress for both us as caregivers and for our loved ones who are suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias.
All disruptions in physical health cause stress for all of us. Even a simple cold in those of us who are physically and mentally healthy causes stress because it interrupts our lives, slows down our lives, and may negatively impact our lives.
A common example for a lot of people is that if you don’t get paid medical leave at work and you can’t be at work because you’re sick, then you don’t get paid, so you have less income that paycheck. Quite frankly, that’s why so many of us just suck it up and go to work anyway unless we’re on the precipice of dying (and that’s a bit of humor, so please take it that way!) and why the entire office ends up getting colds.
The weaker immune systems in the office may end with upper respiratory infections and even pneumonia because we couldn’t afford the stress of having less money in our paycheck. That’s the current reality in the United States in a lot of companies.
So if we realize how much stress illnesses and health problems cause in us, then we understand how the stressor of physical health problems in our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is exacerbated by the neurological impairment and decline.
Except for early onset dementia or early onset Alzheimer’s Disease (younger than 65 years of age when symptoms start), most of our loved ones are well on their way in the physical aging of their bodies and their bodies are wearing out.
High blood pressure is an interesting health stressor to look at because it can be a contributor to vascular dementia developing, yet high blood pressure is related to stress (it is actually the result of constricted arteries, so the heart has to pump harder to keep blood flow going), so this stressor is really a two-edged sword for our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. Stress causes blood pressure to rise and high blood pressure causes stress – and damage – to the heart and to the brain.
However, high blood pressure poses a third risk – and stressor – healthwise. As our loved ones age, high blood pressure becomes more difficult to manage medically, so often multiple types of medications are used, including statins, beta blockers, and diuretics, and some of these – especially long-term use of diuretics to pull fluid off the heart and extremities – have detrimental effects on kidney function and can lead to kidney failure.
Atrial fibrillation can be corrected in its early stages with some medications (with a lot of risks) and later with a pacemaker. However, when looking at a surgical option for our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, we must always consider that going under general anesthesia will always result in further cognitive decline and impairment. And that will be a post-surgical source of more stress for our loved ones.
Defective heart valves and blocked or constricted arteries will create stress for our loved ones in many ways. First, there is physical pain associated with these conditions and pain is a stressor. There is also a decreased flow of oxygen, so breathing will become more difficult. If you’ve ever had a hard time catching your breath (or suffered from respiratory problems like asthma), you know how stressful not being able to breathe can be.
But the decreased flow of oxygen also means less oxygen to the brain, which can make cognitive impairment even more pronounced, no matter where our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are in the course of their journeys, which is another source of stress.
I would strongly urge caregivers of loved ones who also suffer from heart problems to get their loved ones’ oxygen saturation levels tested. A continuous oxygen saturation level below 90 means that the body and the brain is not getting enough oxygen (you will find that these levels go extremely low during sleep).
Oxygen is available for home (or care facility) use and will help dramatically. A doctor has to prescribe it, but the saturation test results will make that easy. And a home health equipment company will deliver the equipment.
We used a non-tank oxygen concentrator for Mama at home and I had a portable version with a battery pack to take with us when we went out. I kept the portable oxygen concentrator charged all the time in case we lost power because I didn’t want oxygen tanks in our house (true confession: the oxygen tanks really made me nervous and I was terrified they were going to explode and kill us both and that was the only other no-electricity alternative).
Whether to surgically treat defective heart valves and blocked or constricted arteries is again a matter of weighing the overall risks with the overall benefits.
Although I strongly advise against general anesthesia with our loved ones with neurological damage and cognitive impairment, there are other surgical options that may be available to treat some of these conditions that do not require putting our loved ones all the way under anesthesia.
For example, my mom had congestive heart failure the last three years of her life, so we were both always on high alert for signs of it reaching an acute (full) stage and I got very good at knowing when we needed to do something, medication-wise, to get the fluid off her heart to prevent possible pneumonia and heart failure.
Five and a half months before Mama died, on a Friday afternoon in March (her birthday), Mama started sweating profusely and complaining of pain and nausea. I immediately started doing a medical inventory with her and trying to ascertain where the pain was and what, if anything, we could do at home to alleviate it.
When Mama vomited the first time, I asked if she wanted to go to the hospital, and she said she didn’t, but asked if I could help her over to the couch to lie down and sleep because she thought that might make her feel better.
Mama slept for about an hour with me hovering, wiping the beads of sweat off her forehead, wondering if I was doing the right thing by letting her decide to go the hospital or stay home. We’d already made the decision that she would not go back to the hospital for her heart problems, but instead would treat those at home under her doctor’s guidance.
I don’t know how I knew, but I knew this wasn’t a heart issue, but I didn’t know what else it could be. When Mama awoke from her nap, she groaned with pain and I managed to get a trash can over to her before she vomited again.
I put my hand over her heart and asked if that hurt there and Mama shook her head. I put my hand on her stomach and asked if it hurt there. Mama shook her head again. I knew she’d had her appendix out when she was 19 or 20, so I didn’t bother with her left lower side. I put my hand on her right side just below her ribs and she cried out and vomited again.
I told Mama we needed to go to the hospital and she agreed with me that time. After several hours in the ER, with pain and anti-nausea medication helping Mama with the physical symptoms, the tests the doctor had run showed that Mama had a gall bladder infection. We had to transfer at about 2 am that Saturday morning to a surgical hospital to deal with that.
The gastrointestinal (GI) doctor who came in around 6:30 am that Saturday morning told us that Mama needed her gallbladder removed. Without even worrying about the cognitive effects of general anesthesia, I knew Mama’s heart wasn’t strong enough to survive it.
I told the GI doctor that wasn’t an option because of her heart and I could visibly see the “whatever” look on his face when he very disdainfully told both of us that he could put a drain into to remove the infection under twilight anesthesia, and I’d have to take care of it for six weeks, but it wouldn’t remove the problem and we’d have to do it again within a year.
I knew the odds of us having to do it again before Mama died were slim to none, so Mama and I talked about it and we agreed to the drain. The procedure was scheduled for Sunday morning.
On Sunday morning, a nurse brought surgery paperwork into Mama’s room early for me to sign. I told her “no surgery” and I refused to sign the paperwork until the GI doctor changed it to the procedure for putting in the drain.
And even though we chose the least affecting method for Mama to do something that had to be done, it caused a lot of stress for Mama (both the procedure and the six weeks the drain was in) and it negatively affected her cognition dramatically for several weeks (she finally stabilized with a little improvement by the third week in April).
When we got home, I immediately revised Mama’s diet to include foods that would help her gallbladder and remove foods that might lead to another infection. I tried to keep a lot of fat out of our diets anyway, but I also knew that Mama had a limited amount of life left, so I indulged her love for ice cream every evening for dessert after dinner and when she told me one day she wanted “a hamburger at that place we used to go to,” I let her splurge on a Five Guys burger with the works and french fries.
But the stress of Mama’s physical health problems never fully went away after that. Even though she recovered beautifully from the gallbladder infection, the congestive heart failure was gaining ground and she was in pain with her heart frequently.
And that would increase her levels of stress, alternately making her worried – about me and the “burden” she thought she was to me (I always reassured her that she was not a burden to me and I wouldn’t be anywhere else doing anything else because I loved her) – and agitated about things.
My struggle – and our struggle as caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Diseases along with other physical health problems – was not to let Mama’s stress get me stressed out.
Most of the time, I did pretty well managing my own stress in front of her.
But there were plenty of times where, even though Mama didn’t know it, my own stress levels from wanting to make sure she was comfortable and not in pain and that I was doing everything right and my own knowledge that the end was close even though I didn’t know what that would look like were extremely high and sustained.
Truth be told, I don’t really think even now, a year and a half after her death, my sustained stress levels have gone down. It’s seems as though I just traded one kind of stress for other – and, in my opinion, worse – kinds of stress.
(I often wonder if this is just the new normal for me. And how the effects, if I live long enough – although I hope I don’t because I don’t want to be a burden to anyone – will play out for me. I plead with God every day to end my life before I outlive my body and my brain.)
One other type of physical health stressors that are common to our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are the cognitive impairment-related health issues. The two most common are pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
Pneumonia is many times listed as the cause of death in our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. This is because as neurological damage increases, having trouble chewing and swallowing (automatic reflexes controlled by the brain) causes choking (a stress mechanism) and food gets aspirated into the lungs, causing infection.
Urinary tract infections can be very common in our loved ones as well. A lack of hydration can be one cause, while improper hygiene can be another cause. However, both can, at the same time, be causes. Urinary tract infections are treatable with antibiotics, so it’s imperative to start those as soon as symptoms appears.
One of the most common symptoms of a urinary tract infection in our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is a sudden and sharp cognitive decline marked by profound confusion, extreme agitation, and sometimes physically aggressive behavior (a stress mechanism) where there was none before.
So, if we as caregivers observe this in our loved ones, we need to seek immediate medical treatment for them, either by home health nurses or by going to the ER.
This concludes this series on stressors and how they affect our loved ones with cognitive impairment and neurological damage. I hope it’s been informative.
I plan on doing another series in the future on some of the ways we – who are still healthy mentally and physically – can reduce or eliminate the potential stressors others might face if we get terminally ill (these are terminal illnesses) or we die.