Every 68 seconds someone in America develops Alzheimer’s; by 2050 someone will develop the disease every 33 seconds and the numbers could reach as high as 16 million.
What is it?
Alzheimer’s is a common degenerative form of dementia (cognitive decline) that occurs when protein deposits referred to as “plaques” and “tangles” form between and within the brain’s nerve cells. Plaques and tangles clog the brain’s circuitry and rob brain tissue of blood and oxygen, causing nerve cells to die. Over time, those with Alzheimer’s lose the ability to learn, think, plan, talk, and remember. The risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age; 5.1 million Americans have the disease, most of whom are over 65. It’s prevalent, but not considered a normal part of aging.
“We’re on the cusp of really finding out what’s going on with this disease. If things go well, in three to four years, we may have a treatment for Alzheimer’s that will slow down the progression of the disease dramatically,” says Maria C. Carillo, Ph.D., senior director of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago.
What are key signs?
• Memory loss, especially with new information. Don’t worry—misplacing your keys or wallet aren’t symptoms. With Alzheimer’s, you’ll make major mistakes, such as reintroducing yourself to someone you just met a minute ago, but forgetting the introduction.
• Feeling confused or disoriented surrounding routine tasks, such as getting lost in your own neighborhood.
• Problems with language. It’s customary with the disease to forget common words, such as the word for toothbrush. You may have trouble organizing your thoughts and expressing yourself—serious enough to interfere with your work or social life.
How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed?
Plaques and tangles are too small to be detected through a CT scan or MRI. But a skilled neurologist should be able to diagnose Alzheimer’s with a 90 percent certainty through a neurological and physical exam. The diagnosis can be confirmed later with an autopsy.
Can you prevent it?
You can’t stop the clock—age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s—and genetics may also play a part. But you can potentially reduce your odds by:
Eating a “heart-healthy” diet which is low in animal fat and cholesterol and rich in fruits and vegetables and plant oils. What’s good for your heart also helps keep brain blood vessels and arteries healthy so they can deliver the nutrients and oxygen your brain needs to function properly. A heart-healthy diet may also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress—cell damage that may also contribute to Alzheimer’s. Other studies have explored the relationship between fish consumption, omega-3 fatty acids, and Alzheimer’s disease, but the results have been inconsistent. Moderate alcohol intake, however, particularly wine, may be related to a lower Alzheimer’s risk.
Exercising regularly. Studies suggest that daily moderate physical activity such as brisk walking may help prevent plaques and tangles from forming.
Staying socially connected and mentally enriched as you get older. Continuing to learn new things stimulates the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is the most severely impaired by Alzheimer’s.
Being a learning lifer. A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that lab mice with the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease that were stimulated by their environment—they were given memory tests through a water maze—had healthier brains and stronger recall than unstimulated mice of the same age. The results are a nod to a theory in humans that continuing to push yourself mentally as you age protects your brain from the protein plaques and tangles that muck up your hardwiring, which characterize Alzheimer’s. But it’s not enough to do crossword puzzles or test yourself on trivia games. “Try new things,” says Carrillo. “If you’re always reading fiction, read an autobiography and test yourself to recall three things you remember about what you read the next day.” Changing up your routine, like continuing to learn new things, stimulates the hippocampus, Carrillo says.
Is there a treatment?
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but four FDA-approved drugs are now being used that keep symptoms from worsening for an average of six to 12 months for about half those who take them. This delay can buy patients time to make estate and family planning decisions while they’re still cognizant. More drugs are on the horizon; 35 are now being tested. An Alzheimer’s gene, Apo E, has also been identified and a genetic test is available, although it’s not considered reliable. Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years, although some may live up to 20 years after diagnosis.
For additional information, visit the Alzheimer’s Association of Minnesota-North Dakota online at www.alz.org/mnnd or the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org.
Sandra Gordon writes about health, nutrition, and consumer issues for websites and magazines such as ShopSmart, Arthritis Today, Self, and Prevention. For more about Sandra, visit www.sandrajgordon.com.
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