What You Need to Know About Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer's Walk

The memory loss that leads to Alzheimer’s is not typical forgetfulness. Its severity disrupts daily life and social interactions, adversely affects work and inhibits participation in normal hobbies or activities. Learn more about the signs, symptoms and how to reduce your risk.

By William McHugh, MD, Renown Institute for Neurosciences

Who among us hasn’t forgotten a name, a date or a detail surrounding a story we’ve retold numerous times? We all forget things occasionally. And as we age, it’s normal to experience some delayed memory recall. This is not to be confused with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

People often use these terms interchangeably, but dementia and Alzheimer’s are not the same thing. Dementia is a general category or set of symptoms that encompasses all forms of acquired cognitive loss, including Alzheimer’s, which is the most common form of dementia among the elderly. An estimated 5 million Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That said, Alzheimer’s is not a normal, inevitable part of aging.

For those who develop this progressive, irreversible brain disorder, symptoms generally set in after age 60, but in rare instances the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s present in individuals ages 30 to 60. Known as early-onset Alzheimer’s, it occurs in less than 5 percent of all people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is generally due to genetics or a considerable family history of the disease.

The memory loss that leads to Alzheimer’s is not typical forgetfulness. Its severity disrupts daily life and social interactions, adversely affects work and inhibits participation in normal hobbies or activities. As the disease progresses people experience mood changes, confusion and difficulty multi-tasking. They feel disoriented, misplace things, wander or get lost in otherwise familiar places, and struggle to organize thoughts and express themselves.

Judgement and reasoning become compromised, managing money also becomes problematic, and often individuals don’t recognize family and friends. Hallucinations, paranoia and delusions can eventually set in. At its most severe, those with Alzheimer’s cannot communicate and are completely dependent on others. Sadly, patients in the final stages of the disease are usually bedridden until their bodies completely shut down.

While Alzheimer’s has no cure, there are treatments available for this complex disease. Medications have proven effective in the late stages, helping manage behavioral issues, mitigate memory loss and maintain a higher mental function than otherwise possible.

And while you cannot prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, you can reduce your risk. A healthy lifestyle equals better brain health and memory, so exercise regularly, maintain your cardiovascular health and eat a healthful diet. The right nutrients can improve circulation to your brain, which boosts your cognitive and mental abilities. So speak to your doctor about the foods and supplements that are right for you.

If you are concerned about your own memory and cognitive skills, or if a loved one is experiencing memory loss or declined cognitive function that adversely impacts their ability to function, seek medical attention. Although the disease cannot be stopped or reversed, early diagnosis can help preserve daily function and quality of life longer, giving individuals and their families time to prepare for the future including financial and legal matters, living arrangements, safety concerns, and care and support networks.

But for now, take care of your body and exercise your brain. Keep your mind agile and nimble and improve your concentration with activities like crossword puzzles and reading, Sudoku, or even board games that test your basic knowledge and memory. Social interaction can have the same stimulating effect on your cognitive function. So turn off the television. Put down the smart phone. Step away from the computer. Take a break from social media. Spend some quality time with friends and family, building brainpower while you chat, laugh and truly engage — face to face.

 
This story was also published in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Health Source on Sept. 25, 2016.

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