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Alzheimer's Disease: Part I of II - What it is & understanding your risk

Are you ready for a little Alzheimer’s disease 101? If your answer is yes, then let’s get started with a quick review from last week in addition to a few basic facts. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and it is currently the 6th leading cause of death in our country. It is estimated that 2 out of every 3 people who develop Alzheimer’s disease are women. Ethnic minorities (specifically, African Americans and Hispanics) are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than Caucasians. The Alzheimer’s Association reported that 1 out of every 9 Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease. That number dramatically increases with age, as approximately 1 out of every 3 Americans aged 85 and older are likely to have already developed it. If dementia is not considered a normal part of aging, then why is this happening? While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease remains unclear, there are a number of risk factors that could increase your likelihood of developing this devastating condition.

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder. In layman's terms, this translates to a brain disease that becomes progressively worse over time. Neuroscientists have discovered a couple of specific proteins that appear to be responsible for the development of Alzheimer's disease. At some point, these proteins begin to act abnormally by clumping together to form plaques and tangles in the brain. Plaques and tangles are unwelcome guests that act like roadblocks, interfering with the connections and signals that are being transmitted from one area of the brain to another. As the plaques and tangles continue to accumulate, the healthy brain tissue surrounding them starts to atrophy or decay. The part of the brain that is most affected by Alzheimer’s disease just so happens to be responsible for storing memories. What we don’t know with any certainty is the reason why and when these aforementioned proteins begin to act abnormally.

Certainly, there are risk factors like the ones I listed above that we are unable to control, such as gender, ethnicity, and age. Genetics appear to play a major role in one’s susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease as well, particularly when it comes to people who become symptomatic when they are young (i.e. under the age of 65). However, having a close family member with Alzheimer’s disease does not mean that you are doomed to travel down that same path. Individual differences should always be taken into consideration when dealing with both medical and psychiatric illnesses. So without getting bogged down by too many details, here is a list of risk factors that each and every one of us has the ability to address and potentially minimize: heart disease (including other conditions that affect the heart, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes), obesity, head injuries and concussions, health problems that cause inflammation, untreated sleep disorders, excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs, malnutrition or poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, a cognitively unstimulating lifestyle, and even social isolation.

Alzheimer’s disease is a relatively sneaky illness. Meaning that a person with Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t just wake up one morning with memory loss and then rapidly deteriorate. It is not uncommon for people to initially attribute lapses in memory to their age and, subsequently, hold off on informing anyone of their symptoms for a year or more. Furthermore, the damage that occurs in certain parts of the brain leads many people to develop a condition called anosognosia, which is a lack of self-awareness or insight. In other words, they forget that they are forgetting! Sometimes the family members of a person who has the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease question whether their loved one is in denial or deliberately attempting to irritate them. Although I can’t speak for everyone, this is usually not the case despite what it may seem at first glance. In next week’s blog post, I will discuss how to handle this type of situation in addition to providing other caregiving tips, compensatory strategies for people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and a brief review of the treatment options that are currently available.

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