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At its annual conference today, the Alzheimer’s Association (AA) highlighted research on treatments for some of the noncognitive symptoms people with dementia often experience. Such behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia — agitation, apathy, mood changes, hallucinations, sleep disturbances, wandering and the like — are often among the most challenging for family members and caregivers to handle. They're also particularly difficult to treat since no drugs are approved to specifically address these dementia-related symptoms, which are often the leading reasons patients are placed in assisted living facilities or nursing homes, according to the AA.
"Most people think about Alzheimer's disease as being a forgetfulness disorder, but a quarter of people present with nonmemory, noncognitive changes," says James M. Noble, M.D., an associate professor of neurology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and a faculty member at the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain in New York City. "Noncognitive symptoms become quite stressful for caregivers. Seeing changes in personality in important relationships that may have been previously loving can be very challenging."
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Mike and Cheryl Belleville of Bellingham, Mass., can personally attest to this. In 2014, Mike, then 52, was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. "I was always a laid-back kind of guy and easy to get along with — that changed, 180 degrees," says Mike, who was a technician for Verizon for almost 20 years and has three grown children. "I'm very quick to anger and I can't control it. It just comes over me like a wave."
"I never know what I'm going to walk into — there's no predicting how his anger is going to be," says Cheryl, who notes that her husband often has no recollection of encounters in which he's yelled at family members.
It was the changes in Mike's temperament and behavior that first led him to see a neurologist, who made the diagnosis after conducting various tests. After Mike began having hallucinations, Parkinson's-like symptoms and sleep disturbances (in which he acts out bad dreams, sometimes violently), his diagnosis was changed in 2016 to Lewy body dementia.