This month’s Q&A is about Alzheimer’s Disease or AD, the most common form of dementia. This disease affects millions of Americans and its causes remain largely unknown. A diagnosis can be scary both for the patient and their family. In today’s Q&A we discuss common questions.
Q: Some people use the tongue-in-cheek moniker “Old Timer’s Disease” to describe Alzheimer’s Disease. Is AD an inevitable part of aging?
A: While the primary risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease is age, AD is not a normal part of aging. We all become more forgetful as we age, but the symptoms of AD are more pronounced and debilitating. While there is no definitive diagnosis for AD, we can usually identify a case of Alzheimer’s with a high degree of certainty.
Q: What are the first signs of Alzheimer’s and how do I know it is not normal age-related cognitive decline?
A: Memory loss is usually the first sign of AD, although other symptoms such as vision, speech and judgment impairment may exist in early stages as well. Self-diagnosis of AD is not possible as there are a number of factors that may affect memory such as medications, other medical conditions or stress. Visiting a neurologist is important for an accurate diagnosis.
Q: A close relative had Alzheimer’s Disease, does that mean I will get it too?
A: Not necessarily. While we know that early-onset Alzheimer’s is inherited, late onset Alzheimer’s – that which occurs after the age of 60 does not seem to have a direct pattern with the patient’s genetic makeup. As with many diseases, we do believe that genetic factors may increase the risks associated with developing AD. Recent research suggests that microbial infection may contribute to the onset of AD in genetically predisposed patients.
Q: How long do people with Alzheimer’s live?
A: the life expectancy of a patient with Alzheimer’s disease can vary significantly, with some patients living up to 20 or more years while others living less than three. Typically, a younger patient, diagnosed at an early stage of impairment will have the best chance of living longer. Research suggests that women with AD also live longer than their male counterparts.
Q: Can Alzheimer’s be prevented?
A: Since we don’t know enough about the causes of the disease, it is impossible to say that AD is preventable. We do know that lifestyle modifications, such as good diet and exercise regimens as well as keeping the brain active with work, social interaction, puzzles or games may all be helpful in reducing the risk of AD. Ultimately, a healthy, active lifestyle is good for the body and mind. Some cases of AD are inherited and therefore cannot be avoided – this is true for early-onset AD.
Q: What is the future of Alzheimer’s research?
A: Alzheimer’s Disease affects millions of people in the United States and funding for research is significant. Scientists, clinicians and pharmaceutical companies are working tirelessly to develop a better understanding of the disease and how to prevent or treat it. Once the medical community determines the root cause or causes of the disease, we will be able to develop targeted treatments to slow or reverse AD. In the meantime, diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages offers the best chance for patients to slow the symptoms of this degenerative disease. With modern medical and surgical interventions, patients are living fuller, longer lives than ever before.
Q: Any thoughts for families of patients with Alzheimer’s Disease?
A: As a physician who treats age related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, we know how much this can also affect families. As a result, we always encourage the family to be a part of the diagnostic and treatment process. There are many support groups in Tuscon, Arizona and around the nation that focus on Alzheimer’s patients and their families and we encourage anyone at the front lines of the disease to attend. The Pima Council on Aging is also an excellent source for resources in the community: https://www.pcoa.org/.
Knowledge is key to managing the disease, so do your research, ask questions and be sure to keep an open line of communication with your neurologist and other specialists associated with the care of the AD patient.