By Sandra Gordon
Alzheimer’s is the most common 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. Plagues 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; 5.7 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., chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association.
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 common with the disease to forget common words, such as the word for toothbrush. You may have trouble organizing your thoughts and expressing yourself that’s serious enough to interfere with your work or social life.
How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed?
Plagues 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’s the most severely impaired by Alzheimer’s.
“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.”
Is there a treatment?
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but the FDA has approved five prescription drugs to treat its symptoms—cholinesterase inhibitors: donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), and rivastigmine (Exelon), which work by increasing levels acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in memory and other thought processes, and memantine (Namenda) to improve memory, attention, reason, and the ability to perform simple tasks. Another drug, Namzaric, a combination of donepezil and memantine, is approved for people taking those with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. These medications can buy patients time to make estate and family planning decisions while they’re still cognizant. More drugs are on the horizon that promise to treat the disease rather than just its symptoms. Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years, although some may live up to 20 years after diagnosis.
For more information, visit the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org.
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