Ten Facts You (Maybe) Didn’t Know about Alzheimer’s Disease
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June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. We wanted to do our part to share information about the disease. If you’re not sure what it is, Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) destroys memory and other mental functions by killing brain cells and connections between cells. It is the most common cause of dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association recently released its 2020 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. We pulled a few facts that you may or may not know about the disease1.
The number of Americans with AD is expected to increase drastically by mid-century. As of 2020, 5.8 million Americans age 65 and older have AD. By 2050, experts say more than 13.8 million may have the disease.
It is the sixth leading cause of death in the US. Deaths from stroke, HIV, and heart disease are decreasing, but deaths from AD are on the rise.
A limited number of clinicians specialize in dementia and geriatric care, so primary care physicians (PCPs) are treating most AD and dementia patients. Many PCPs feel underprepared and that they lack training. Family and friends can help by being informed and speaking up for their loved ones. The Alzheimer’s Association is a good place to learn more.
If you are over 65, ask for a cognitive evaluation at each annual wellness visit. Doctors don’t always recognize dementia because the patients don’t complain or they have too little time with the doctor during the visit. Make sure to ask for an evaluation for yourself and your loved ones.
There is no single test to diagnose AD. The diagnosis is made in steps. The doctor will listen to you and your family members’ reports on cognitive (mental processing) and behavior changes. They will give you problem-solving and memory tests. You will also have lab tests to rule out other causes of dementia like tumors or vitamin deficiencies. The doctor may use a PET scan or lumbar puncture to measure levels of a toxic protein called beta-amyloid that is elevated in AD.
Five FDA-approved medications temporarily improve cognitive symptoms in AD. None slow down or stop the progression of the disease. Some medications are used “off-label” to treat other common symptoms such as agitation, aggression, and hallucinations. Alternative treatments also have proven helpful. Aerobic exercise, cognitive stimulation, music-based therapy, psychological therapy, and cognitive training can boost mental function and quality of life.
AD begins changing the brain 20 years or more before the onset of symptoms. AD researchers now use biomarkers to find early changes in the brain. This can help slow or stop progression. Successful research depends on a diverse group of participants from underrepresented populations.
More than 16 million Americans spend an average of 21.9 hours caring for someone with AD or other dementias without pay. Two-thirds are women. Caregivers help loved ones with dementia with daily activities such as bathing, dressing, feeding, toileting, transportation, and taking medications.
Anxiety and depression are higher for caregivers caring for someone with AD. Some caregivers feel a sense of satisfaction and togetherness when caring for loved ones, but most feel burdened. Feeling burdened can lead to low moods, depression, health problems, financial difficulties, and a greater need for personal counseling and respite care.Researchers have studied how to help caregivers cope better for more than 30 years. A multi-pronged approach works best. Use case managers, medical providers, counseling, support groups, and temporary respite care to help address your needs. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association website for resources.
Age, family history, and genetics cannot be changed, but you can reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. To reduce your risk:
Eat a healthy diet
Participate in lifelong learning and cognitive training
Increase physical activity
Prevent and control hypertension, diabetes, and obesity