Right now, there are an estimated 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease. As America’s population ages, that number is predicted to be 14 million by the year 2050. The Alzheimer’s Association states on its website, “Today, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s every 65 seconds. By mid-century, someone in the United States will develop the disease every 33 seconds.”
Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior and is the most common type of dementia. As for dementia, that is the term used for a decline of cognitive skills severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s falls under that umbrella.
While research is still being done to understand exactly how to treat these diseases, the first step is understanding what is happening biologically that causes them in the first place. Billions of cells in the brain regulate everything we do, from language to movement. Nerve cells, or neurons, send signals as electrical charges that cause a release of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, which work by jumping the gap between neurons and carrying the signals within them.
With Alzheimer’s, a buildup of proteins in and around the brain’s neurons disrupts the movement of signals and neurotransmitter activity, leading to nerve cell death and brain tissue loss. As a result, the brain shrinks dramatically, which affects all its functions.
“There’s lots of research going on across this country to develop more effective treatments for Alzheimer’s,” says Anafidelia Tavares, MD, director of programs at the New York City chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “We also have increased advocacy at the federal level for research dollars. Researchers need people to participate in their studies as clinical subjects. And that’s why at the association, we’ve created TrialMatch, which links healthy volunteers and people with the disease to researchers who are working on a cure and more effective treatments.”
While the majority of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, there are approximately 200,000 people under the age of 65 with younger-onset Alzheimer’s.
Occasional memory problems are a normal part of aging, but the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are anything but normal. Telling the difference can be difficult. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 10 warning signs are a good place to start.
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficultly completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or at leisure
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
There’s currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are medications that may offer temporary relief from symptoms like memory loss and confusion. However, these medications can’t reverse or stop the progression of the disease.
Tavares says the Alzheimer’s Association is also “supporting research to see if a combination of activities can reduce somebody’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.” She adds, “Currently we can’t make a message in terms of ‘if you do these things you will prevent your risk of Alzheimer’s disease,’ but many of the things that are heart-healthy are brain-healthy.” The Alzheimer’s Association’s 10 Ways to Love Your Brain is a list of brain-healthy activities that could help reduce the risk of cognitive decline. They include:
- Getting enough exercise
- Challenging your mind through education
- Avoiding smoking
- Taking care of your heart by properly managing your weight, blood pressure, and diabetes
- Keeping your head safe from injury by wearing a seatbelt and helmet, when necessary
- Eating a healthy and balanced diet
- Getting enough sleep
- Taking care of your mental health
- Staying social
- Challenging your mind through puzzles and games
At present, 16.1 million Americans provide unpaid care for someone with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. “I would suggest they reach out to us at the Alzheimer’s Association,” Tavares says of her advice for caregivers. “Through our 24/7 helpline [800-272-3900] we have social workers who are available to help. We have support groups, educational workshops that are free of charge.”
Tavares adds, “It’s important for caregivers to know they are not alone and there are resources to help them.”