— As we age, it’s normal to experience occasional forgetfulness and even some confusion. But when you begin to have consistent issues with thinking, reasoning and remembering, it could be a sign of a more serious condition known as dementia.
According to the National Institute on Aging, dementia is the loss of cognitive function and behavioral abilities to the point that it interferes with daily life. The good news is that minor lapses in memory are not typically indicative of dementia.
The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease – a condition where brain cells decline in function. Understanding Alzheimer’s will help you to be better prepared as a caregiver, patient or supporter.
What are the signs? Alzheimer’s disease usually begins as mild cognitive impairment, which slowly progresses into serious functional difficulties. The major warning signs for Alzheimer’s include:
1. Memory loss. This is one of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s often:
- Forget recently learned information
- Miss appointments or events and don’t recall them later
- Misplace items and set them in strange locations
- Eventually forget the names of familiar people and objects
- Experience confusion about time and place
2. Problems with reasoning and thinking. Individuals with Alzheimer’s often find it increasingly difficult to work with numbers, balance their finances or think abstractly. This may lead to frequently missed bill payments.
3. Changes in behavior. Due to changes in the brain over the course of the disease, Alzheimer’s can cause shifts in behavior and personality including:
- Anxiety and depression
- Aggression and irritability
- Fear and paranoia
4. Disorientation. People with Alzheimer’s may forget the day, month or year. They may also begin to misinterpret their surroundings and become confused as to where they are – and why.
5. Trouble communicating. Those suffering from Alzheimer’s may experience difficulty recalling the correct name of an object. For example, they might call a shovel a “scooping thing.” This cognitive impairment can hinder their ability to express thoughts clearly and may impact social interactions. Occasionally, this is the first sign of Alzheimer’s.
6. Difficulty performing routine activities. As Alzheimer’s progresses, individuals may find it challenging to complete simple, habitual activities, such as following a well-known recipe. Inability to dress or bathe oneself can also appear in later stages of the disease.
7. Poor judgment. A significant decline in decision-making skills is another symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. As a result, people with dementia are especially vulnerable to scams, embezzlement and other forms of financial harm. They may also begin to neglect personal hygiene.
If you notice any of the previously listed symptoms in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your health care provider. Proper and prompt diagnosis is an important first step because other conditions or diseases can also cause dementia.
Can Alzheimer’s be prevented? There is no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However, research suggests that certain lifestyles are associated with a lower risk of dementia.
- Regular exercise. Staying active may improve cognitive function while contributing to overall health. Aim for moderate exercise 30 minutes per day, five days a week.
- Healthy eating. A diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lean protein – with minimal saturated fat and sugar – helps support brain health.
- Brain stimulation. Remaining socially and intellectually involved can positively affect mental function and quality of life. Engage your brain in demanding activities such as reading, completing puzzles, or learning a new language or musical instrument to enhance cognitive well-being.
- Omega-3 fatty acids consumption. In addition to supporting health, preliminary research shows that omega-3 fatty acids, found in various fish, plants and vitamin supplements, may also enhance cognition.
What is the treatment for Alzheimer’s disease? There are several medications used to temporarily slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, but there is not yet a proven treatment for long-term symptom stabilization.
What are the major risk factors? There is still much to be learned about Alzheimer’s disease. Some risk factors linked to Alzheimer’s include:
- Age. This is by far the greatest risk factor. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the odds of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 65. There is also a condition called early-onset Alzheimer’s, which affects people in their 40s or 50s.
- Genetics. Alzheimer’s often runs in families. Scientists have discovered three rare gene mutations that elevate risk for the disease, but it’s clear that many other genes and additional risk factors are involved in developing dementia.
- Gender. Since women tend to live longer than men, they may be at a greater risk for Alzheimer’s.
- Head trauma. There is a potential link between serious or repetitive head injury and future risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
- Vascular risk factors. There is a strong association of Alzheimer's disease with inadequately managed vascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, smoking and obstructive sleep apnea.
By maintaining an open dialogue with your health care provider about any concerns or symptoms, you will have the knowledge and the tools to best address the challenges presented by this disease.
Winnie Pao, M.D., is a Mayo Clinic Health System neurologist.
For more information, please go to www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org.
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