Brain Matters – As People Live Longer, Alzheimer’s Becomes More Prevalent

Q: I recently read a report that cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating that more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and that the U.S. death rate from Alzheimer’s disease increased 55{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} between 1999 and 2014. This worries me, and I’m afraid of developing Alzheimer’s one day. Should I be?

A: While Americans view Alzheimer’s as a major health threat and rate it as the second-most-feared disease behind only cancer, the new report shouldn’t cause you worry. As the population ages and people are living longer due to other medical advances and improved healthcare, they are more likely to develop dementias like Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease of brain aging. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s dementia increases with age. Two to three percent of 70-year-olds have Alzheimer’s. Around one in six 80-year-olds have some degree of Alzheimer’s dementia, and the prevalence is doubled by the age of 85-90.

Q: What is the clinical explanation of Alzheimer’s?

A: Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Other causes of dementia include cerebrovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, fronto-temporal dementia, and certain infections. There are also reversible conditions (like depression, low thyroid levels, or certain vitamin deficiencies) that may look like dementia, but can be treated. So, a thorough evaluation is important.

Q: Who should I talk to about my worries?

A: Your primary-care physician can do an initial evaluation for dementia. This would include a physical and mental status examination, cognitive screening exam, some basic lab tests, and often brain imaging like MRI.

Q: There is no cure, right?

A:  While there are no current medications that cure or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, there are medications that can slow the progression of functional impairment, improving quality of life and delaying the need for higher levels of care received at nursing homes. These medications include donepezil (Aricept) and memantine (Namenda).

Q: When should forgetfulness worry me? Not all memory difficulties are due to Alzheimer’s or other dementia. Mild symptoms may be associated with normal aging or mild impairment.     

A: The Alzheimer’s Assoc. on its website offers two documents on Alzheimer’s and dementia: “10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s” and “10 Ways To Love Your Brain,” which offers tips on how to recognize symptoms and how to reduce your risk of cognitive decline by adopting key lifestyle habits.

Q: What should I do if I have any of the warning signs? 

A: If you notice any of the 10 early signs listed in the above-referenced article, make an appointment to talk to your primary-care doctor, who, after an evaluation, may refer you to a doctor who specializes in dementia evaluation, such as the Baystate Memory Disorders Program. To make an appointment with a specialist in the program, call (413) 794-5555.

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