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:
- Daily life disrupted by memory loss
- Difficulty with following directions or working with numbers
- Trouble with regular tasks
- Confusion about time and place
- Changes in vision that lead to issues with balance, judging distance and contrast in colors
- Struggling to find the right words in conversation
- Losing things and being unable to find them
- Making questionable choices
- Inability to continue with social activities (due to trouble holding conversation)
- 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.