Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of decreased mental functioning (dementia) in adults in the industrialized world and poses a major problem for older people and their loved ones. The disorder presently affects an estimated 17 million people around the world and 4-5 million here in the US, with experts believing the disease will become even more common in coming years.
People with Alzheimer’s disease sustain damage to otherwise healthy brain tissue, which results in the gradual onset of a range of mental and emotional symptoms such as:
- Difficulty performing simple tasks
- Mood changes
- Poor judgment
- Impaired memory
The memory changes seen with Alzheimer’s disease are much more serious than the bothersome forgetfulness that sometimes accompanies normal aging. Symptoms are often mild at first, but in severe cases can include the inability to perform everyday activities such as using a telephone.
The exact cause of Alzheimer's disease hasn’t yet been identified, but researchers believe that important risk factors are age greater than 65 years, chronic inflammation, and a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, and may also include:
- High cholesterol
- A history of significant head trauma
- Cigarette smoking
- Excessive alcohol intake
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is rarely straightforward so multiple blood tests and brain scans are usually obtained by the doctor. This is done mainly to exclude treatable causes of significant mental impairment such as hypothyroidism or vitamin B12 deficiency. Sadly, there is yet no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Existing medications may slow the worsening of symptoms in some people, but they don’t completely stop their progression. The best course of action is to do everything possible to avoid the development of Alzheimer’s disease in the first place.
The following preventive activities may help:
- Follow a Mediterranean-style diet - eating this way is delicious, helps to decrease inflammation in the body, and according to sound research appears to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Design meals around a wide variety of colorful vegetables and fruits, fresh fish, extra virgin olive oil, whole grains, nuts, and anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric.
- Ask your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement – the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils may help decrease inflammation.
- Exercise regularly – doing so may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 50%!
- Maintain a healthy body weight – studies suggest that obesity is another risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
- Exercise your mind, too! – stimulating mental activities such as reading, learning a new language, doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, and playing cards or chess can help keep your brain fit.
- Take a B complex supplement – results of recent studies suggest that taking B vitamins can help prevent brain shrinkage by lowering levels of an amino acid called homocysteine. B vitamin supplements may not be safe for everyone so ask your doctor first.
- Enjoy a little caffeine – a small number of studies suggest that regular ingestion of a small amount of caffeine (don’t overdo it!) may have a mild protective effect against Alzheimer’s.
Other interventions previously thought to hold promise for preventing or treating Alzheimer’s disease, such as taking aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), estrogen therapy for women, the herbal remedy Ginkgo biloba, statin drugs, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, have not proved helpful.
Caring for those with Alzheimer’s disease is a labor of love, but it can be very challenging. If you are a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s disease get help – a good place to start is the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org
). It can be hard to seek help, but the best way to provide truly good care for someone in need is to first be sure you are taking good care of yourself.
Be well, and stay well.
** Information on this web site is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment. **