All About Alzheimer’s

November marks National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. While we may not all know the ins and outs of this disease, we know the terrifying feeling that comes with noticing changes in your own memory, or changes in someone you love. The physicians at Gaston Medical Partners are here to provide you with an overview and help raise awareness of a disease that affects more than five million people in the United States.

What is Alzheimer’s?

While the terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” are sometimes used interchangeably, dementia is not considered an actual disease. Rather, it refers to memory loss and impaired cognitive ability, and is not a normal part of the aging process. Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, is a diagnosed disease and the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60%-80% of all cases

The name comes from Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist who studied the brain of a woman after she died of unknown causes, with many of the symptoms we now associate with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Alzheimer’s is considered a progressive disease, and to date, one with no cure. Research is ongoing, and there are treatments available to help improve quality of life. Most diagnosed with the disease are ages 65 and older, but approximately 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Symptoms usually present as struggling to remember newly learned information, since Alzheimer’s affects the part of the brain responsible for recent knowledge. As the disease progresses and brain cells continue to be damaged and die off, symptoms also progress, often resulting in disorientation, general confusion, changes in behavior, trouble speaking and more significant memory loss.

The average life expectancy after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is four to eight years, but this can vary depending on other factors, with others living much longer. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

Symptoms to Watch

The Alzheimer’s Association has compiled a list of ten things to look for when considering a potential diagnosis:

  1. Daily life disrupted by memory loss
  2. Difficulty with following directions or working with numbers 
  3. Trouble with regular tasks
  4. Confusion about time and place
  5. Changes in vision that lead to issues with balance, judging distance and contrast in colors
  6. Struggling to find the right words in conversation
  7. Losing things and being unable to find them
  8. Making questionable choices
  9. Inability to continue with social activities (due to trouble holding conversation)
  10. Overall changes in behavior

What Puts You At Risk?

Since Alzheimer’s is a disease that generally affects those who are older, age is naturally a factor. While men and women seem equally affected, women are more frequently diagnosed since they generally live longer than men. Having a family history, such as a parent or a sibling with Alzheimer’s, also puts you at increased risk. Additional risk factors include having Down syndrome, a past head injury, poor sleep habits, and health issues that put you at risk of heart disease (obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, tobacco use, etc.).

Can You Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

While Alzheimer’s is not preventable, you can help reduce your risk with a healthy lifestyle. There seems to be a correlation between cardiovascular health and brain health, so taking the proper precautions to avoid heart disease (eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, preventing/managing diabetes, monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol, and avoiding smoking) can have the additional benefit of lowering your potential risk for Alzheimer’s.

It is also recommended that you keep your mind sharp. Activities like reading, playing games that make you think (cards, crossword puzzles, etc.), music and art are all good choices. Continuing to remain socially engaged and connected with others is just as important.

How is Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?

While a conclusive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can only be determined after death when the brain is studied during autopsy, physicians use a number of assessments to help rule out other health issues. This includes conversations with the patient and/or caregiver, where the provider can learn more about their health history and current experiences; cognitive tests to look for memory impairment, language retrieval, counting issues and general problem solving; testing blood and urine; and exploring any relevant brain findings using technology like CT, MRI or PET.

What Should You Do?

If you fear that you or someone close to you may be suffering from Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia, speak with your primary care provider for guidance in getting a proper diagnosis. The Alzheimer’s Association also has a Western Carolina Chapter and a hotline available 24/7 at 800.272.3900.

Diabetes – Know Your Risks

With diabetes the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, affecting over 34 million people, it makes sense that the month of November is designated American Diabetes Month. But what exactly is diabetes? What are its risk factors and symptoms? And can you prevent it? We asked the physicians at Gaston Medical Partners to provide some clarity.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when your body cannot properly process blood sugar, also known as glucose. The food you eat is broken down into sugar, which is released in your bloodstream. When your blood sugar rises, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which allows the glucose to reach the cells in your tissues and muscles, and fuel your body. With diabetes, your body either doesn’t produce insulin or doesn’t properly use it. Without appropriate levels of insulin, higher amounts of blood sugar will remain in your bloodstream, which can lead to a variety of health issues.

What are the different types?

Prediabetes – Approximately one in three people are diagnosed with prediabetes, which refers to having higher than normal blood sugar. Without making appropriate changes, those with prediabetes are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Type 1 diabetes – Most often appearing in childhood or adolescence, type 1 diabetes occurs when your body does not produce insulin. Type 1 affects 5%-10% of those with diabetes, and it is not preventable.

Type 2 diabetes – The most common kind of diabetes (accounting for 90%-95% of cases), type 2 generally affects those over the age of 40. With type 2, your body doesn’t properly use insulin and you need to work to control blood sugar levels. Implementing changes to your diet or incorporating regular exercise into your routine can help manage it, or you may need medicine to help regulate your glucose.

Gestational diabetes – Gestational diabetes can occur during pregnancy in women who have no previous history of  diabetes. It can increase the baby’s health risks, so women diagnosed with gestational diabetes should work with their doctors to help manage their blood sugar levels for the rest of the pregnancy. Developing gestational diabetes can put women at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, but gestational diabetes typically resolves on its own after the baby is delivered.

What are the risk factors?

Several factors put you at increased risk of developing diabetes, namely being overweight, not exercising, having a family history (parent or sibling), being over the age of 45, or having gestational diabetes when pregnant. Racial identity can also play a role, with African American, Hispanic/Latinx, American Indian and Alaska Native at higher risk.

What are the symptoms?

With type 1 diabetes, symptoms can come on more suddenly and be more severe. While some people with prediabetes or type 2 may not exhibit any symptoms, typical symptoms of type 1 include increased thirst, frequent urination, hunger, fatigue, ketones in urine (that show a lack of insulin), and unexplained weight loss.

What can you do?

While diabetes is not completely preventable, you can lower your risk factors by incorporating a healthy, active lifestyle. Eating a well-balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight, combined  with regular exercise, can help keep diabetes at bay, or help you to manage your blood sugar levels should you develop it. If you have any concerns about your risk factors for diabetes, or want to discuss testing your blood sugar, speak to your primary care physician for guidance.