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Alzheimer’s Disease: Mystery No More

More than five million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s disease. The most common cause of memory loss, Alzheimer’s is widely under-diagnosed because of the incorrect assumption that old age and forgetfulness go hand-in-hand. But memory loss is not something to take lightly. If you’ve ever had a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you know how hard it can be emotionally and mentally for those suffering—and their families.

David C. Weisman, MD, a neurologist at Abington – Jefferson Health, discusses the basics about Alzheimer’s, how to best cope with a diagnosis and what recent research has shared about the disease.

Old Age Doesn’t Equal Memory Loss

There’s a widely perpetuated myth that with getting older comes more memory loss. This is simply untrue, and the reason why so many people with Alzheimer’s go undiagnosed for so long. “It was once so common to be forgetful in old age that it was thought to be normal. But normal aging only includes things like tip-of-tongue memory loss and forgetting faces. Anything more—like forgetting tasks you’re supposed to complete or repeating questions shortly after you get an answer—may be a sign of Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Weisman.

Many people think of Alzheimer’s disease as just late-stage dementia—older people living in a nursing home, not able to take care of themselves—but it actually exists on a spectrum. “People can live with a prodromal stage of Alzheimer’s for many years before more serious symptoms start to arise,” says Dr. Weisman. “In fact, the first person ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s was only 51.”

In the prodromal stage—an early stage of the disease when symptoms first start to appear—Alzheimer’s is considered a mild cognitive impairment, with obvious symptoms of a change in brain function, but not necessarily life-altering. About one percent of 65-year-olds are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—a figure that doubles with every five years of age. “The occurrence of Alzheimer’s exponentially increases as people age,” says Dr. Weisman. “About 45 percent of people over the age of 85 are living with it.”

More Than a “Senior Moment”

If you’re worried about Alzheimer’s, there are some symptoms to look out for that indicate a potential issue. “If there’s a change in the way you or your loved one is acting—whether it’s a cognitive change or something different in their visual or language presentations—it’s time to visit a doctor,” says Dr. Weisman.

Early signs of Alzheimer’s can include quickly forgetting conversations or information and repeating questions. Many times these symptoms are brushed off as “senior moments,” but they could actually indicate something serious. If you notice these patterns, it’s best to get it checked out early before it gets worse.

Steps to Prevention

There’s a host of genes that could play a role in the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease, but many times whether or not we develop the disease is out of our control. While there’s ongoing research on prevention for those with a family history of Alzheimer’s, there are steps you can take toward healthy brain function now.

“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. To keep your brain healthy, follow a heart-healthy lifestyle: exercise, practice healthy sleep habits and eat a heart-healthy diet,” says Dr. Weisman. It’s also important to continue seeing your primary care doctor on a regular basis. Your doctor can help track changes in your health and cognition, and catch any potential symptoms or problems early.

Hope for People with Alzheimer’s

Currently, Alzheimer’s is treated mostly through symptom management. “There are medications that can help increase memory and ease some other manifestations of the disease such as anxiety, depression, irritability and insomnia,” says Dr. Weisman. “These treatments can dramatically increase the quality of life for both the patients and their families.”

The good news is, Alzheimer’s is becoming less of a mystery to those in the healthcare field. “Through extensive research, we now know that Alzheimer’s is caused by an abnormal protein collection in the brain,” says Dr. Weisman. “Healthcare providers are working on more disease-modifying therapies based on this knowledge, and we hope to be able to offer them to the public in the near future. We want to stabilize the disease and not just treat the symptoms, but the underlying problem that’s causing this decline in cognition.”

If you’re a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s, know that there’s hope on the horizon. “Always take care of yourself first, and remember to treat those with Alzheimer’s with understanding, compassion and love,” says Dr. Weisman.

For more information, visit Jefferson.edu/Farber.

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