HEALTHY AGING AND ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
November is Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, or decline in cognitive function. And while it is not a normal part of aging, over 6 million older adults live with the disease. As the aging population increases, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate the number living with Alzheimer’s will be nearly 14 million by 2060.
Science still does not fully understand the disease and research to improve treatments and find a cure is ongoing. The more we know about Alzheimer’s, the better we are able to recognize early warning signs and seek treatment. Moreover, understanding and reducing Alzheimer’s risk factors may help delay or even avoid the onset of this debilitating disease.
WHAT IS ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE (AD)?
Alzheimer’s disease or dementia is a progressive degenerative brain disorder. It affects parts of the brain that control our thoughts, memory, and speech, and is believed to involve a deposit of plaques and tangles. AD causes difficulty concentrating and thinking and affects mood and behaviors. It is usually a very gradual decline in these areas, but the decline continues and worsens.
It is normal for our brain to naturally slow down a little and we may be less able to multi-task or are a little more forgetful. It’s natural to misplace our keys or forget someone’s name. However, with Alzheimer’s dementia, the cognitive decline is more severe and impacts our activities of daily living.
Early signs include:
-Finding it hard to remember things
-Asking the same questions over and over
-Having trouble paying bills or balancing a check book
-Putting things in odd places
With the progression of the disease, functions that require a series of steps, such as dressing and bathing, become difficult to do. Remembering names of family members may fade, and behaviors may become out-of-character.
As the disease advances, additional symptoms may include:
-Depression and withdrawal from social activities
-Mood swings that may result in aggressiveness
-Distrust in others and accusing one of stealing
-Wandering and exit seeking
-Loss of inhibitions
-Changes with sleep patterns and eating abilities
WHAT IS MY RISK FOR ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE?
The cause of Alzheimer’s dementia is not well defined, and scientists believe it is likely a result of multiple factors. Therefore, the risk is difficult to pinpoint. Some factors may be unchangeable such as age, and genetics, while others may be modifiable, such as lifestyle.
–Age is probably the greatest risk factor of AD, as the majority of cases are diagnosed after the age of 65.
–Heredity; Certain genes make you more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Apolipoprotein E (APOE) is the most common. Different forms of this gene are associated with getting the disease at an earlier age versus the more typical late-onset age over 65. But not everyone who has the gene goes on to have AD.
–Lifestyle may play an important role in determining risk for Alzheimer’s dementia. Studies show healthy behaviors that reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes, may also help reduce the risk of dementia. In other words, behaviors such as eating a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight will potentially make a difference in how we age, both physically and mentally.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY RISK?
THESE HEALTHY LIFESTYLE BEHAVIORS MAY DELAY OR PREVENT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE.
-Maintain a safe blood pressure:
High blood pressure damages tiny blood vessels affecting parts of the brain responsible for thinking and memory. Research supports a relationship between high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s risk. On the plus side, results also found those taking antihypertensive medication, were able to lower their risk by one-third.
-Quit or don’t start smoking
Smoking is bad for many reasons. It destroys cells, including brain cells, which can lead to neurological damage. Studies find that compared to those who never smoked, current smokers were 30% more likely to develop dementia and 40% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia.
-Loose weightObesity is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. In addition, increasing evidence points to mid-life obesity as a risk factor for developing AD. Results suggest a hormone released from fat cells, leptin, is a potential cause.
Depression is a known symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, however, research suggests it may also be a risk factor. A review of several studies finds depression may increase AD risk by causing inflammatory changes and adding to plaque deposits.
MORE WAYS TO LOWER YOUR ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE RISK
-Avoid a sedentary lifestyle
Inactivity increases the risk for many chronic conditions. Conversely, exercise helps to reduce risk by protecting cells against damage. Studies show that regular physical activity may delay or decrease AD risk by preserving brain cell health.
Elevated blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, associated with diabetes has the potential to increase the risk of AD. Prolonged hyperglycemia results in cell damage of organs and blood vessels and may promote impairment of brain cells.
-Limit or avoid alcohol intake
Excess alcohol intake is defined as two or more drinks per day, and is a well-known risk factor for many health issues. It’s affect on brain function is similar to brain changes seen in AD and is therefore being studied as a potential risk factor for developing the disease.
-Reduce your exposure to air pollution
Vehicle exhaust and manufacturing plants provide the major sources of air pollution. Exposure affects lung health, causing inflammation and cell damage, and leads to respiratory diseases. There is increasing evidence that links air pollution to brain cell damage and AD risk.
HOW CAN I HELP RAISE AWARENESS?
-Increase your knowledge about Alzheimer’s.
-Learn the early signs and preventative measures and share the information with family and friends
-Visit a nursing home and volunteer with Alzheimer’s patients
-Take part in a Walk to End Alzheimer’s walk. Look for one organized in your area.
-Donate to the Alzheimer’s Association.
THE BOTTOM LINE ON ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
Alzheimer’s Disease is a debilitating and life-changing disease. Although many suffer from it, it is not a normal part of aging. Research is ongoing with the hopes of improving treatments and finding a cure.
In the meantime, learn the facts about Alzheimer’s disease to recognize the early warning signs and the lifestyle changes that may delay or prevent it. Visit Alz.org to find out about ways to volunteer or take part in events in your area.