June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month.  Many of you are dealing with this on a daily basis and know all too personally the effects this disease has on the individual and the family unit as a whole. Just to cover a few facts, consider this:

  • More than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s Disease.  By 2050, that number is expected to be about 14 million.
  • It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • 1 in 3 senior adults dies with a form of dementia.
  • 66% of those with Alzheimer’s are women.
  • In 2020, dementia will cost the nation approximately 305 billion dollars.  By 2050, the estimated cost is 1.1 trillion.
  • There are more than 16 million unpaid caregivers that provide an estimated 18.6 billion hours of care valued at nearly 244 billion dollars.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease is the only disease in the top 10 leading causes of death that has seen virtually no improvement  – very little treatments and no cure.

Alzheimer’s Disease is one of the diseases under the “umbrella” of dementia.  Dementia is a group of conditions marked by memory disorder, personality change, and impaired reasoning.  Saying you have dementia is kind of like saying you have cancer.  It doesn’t specify the type, which will present differently and demonstrate a disease progression unique to that particular condition.  The most common forms of dementia are Alzheimer’s Disease, Vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s dementia, and Frontotemporal dementia. One should consult with a qualified neurologist in order to determine the particular type one has.

Alzheimer’s Disease often presents with memory problems, as the disease usually affects the hippocampus first.  It can also impact “executive functioning” skills like judgement, planning and reasoning.  One may also misplace things, have difficulty doing routine tasks, or struggle with conversations. Alzheimer’s is marked by the accumulation of plaques and tangles in the brain which disrupt the normal functioning of brain cells, and eventually cause their death.  There is some debate as to whether the plaques and tangles are the cause, or merely a symptom of the disease.  Research has mainly focused to date on removing the plaques and tangles, but that has not proven to be beneficial in reversing the disease even once cleared. Researchers are left wondering if they are intervening too late, or if there are other causes that need to be addressed.  It may be a combination of genetics, environmental causes, and lifestyle choices that all come together to create a perfect storm.”

Some of the risk factors for Alzheimer’s include:

  • Age – Risk increases with age.
  • Family history – If someone’s first-degree relative (mother, father, or sibling) has Alzheimer’s, the chances are up to seven times greater that they may develop the disease.
  • Genetic Predisposition – A person with the APOe-4 gene is at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life.
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Head injury
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cardiovascular disease

What can I do to reduce my risk?  Some experts believe that as much as 30%-50% of dementia could be avoided by adopting healthy lifestyles. We have already covered many of the lifestyle changes one can adopt to reduce risk in previous blogs, but as a reminder, they include:

  • Exercise
  • Follow the Mediterranean or MIND diet
  • Keep chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure in check
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Stimulate your brain by learning new things
  • Socialize

You got the diagnosis…now what?  While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are things one can do to possibly slow the progression and increase quality of life.  Certain medications like Aricept, Namenda, Razadyne, or Exelon may help manage some of the symptoms of the disease. There are numerous lifestyle factors that one can implement as well. The proactive measures one can take to mitigate risk has also been shown to possibly slow the progression of the disease.  An active person who engages in mental stimulation, socializing, a good diet, etc. will likely see a different progression than someone who simply sits on the couch, watches television all day, and eats a diet high in processed foods and sugar.  Stay as engaged as possible, no matter what stage of the disease one is in.  I have seen individuals in late stage Alzheimer’s flourish when taken out of an unhealthy environment and put into one where they are fed nutritious meals and stimulated with activities of puzzles, games, books, and coloring. That engagement makes an enormous difference in their quality of life and disease progression.  Keep your loved one engaged!