Pella Chronicle

Health

January 4, 2013

Increasing Awareness and Understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease

Pella — In daily conversation, many of us jokingly refer to forgetting something at home or maybe forgetting an appointment as dementia. Dementia is not a specific disease; rather it’s an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.

Alzheimer’s disease—named after 19th Century German psychiatrist Dr. Alois Alzheimer—accounts for 60-80 percent of cases of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. Very early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include memory problems. Sometimes, other thinking problems such as trouble finding the right words or poor judgment are most prominent early on.  

Estimates vary, but experts suggest as many as 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. Unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented, the number of people with it will increase significantly if current population trends continue. We’re not immune from the increase of Alzheimer’s disease here in Iowa.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, by 2025, in Iowa we will see an increase of 18 percent of people ages 65-plus with Alzheimer’s disease compared with 2000.

Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging, although the greatest risk factor is maturing; indeed the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. Up to 5 percent of people with the disease have early-onset Alzheimer’s, which often appears in their 40s or 50s.

Scientists and researchers don’t fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but it has become increasingly clear that it develops because of a complex series of events that take place in the brain over a long period. It is likely that the causes include some mix of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors—for example, there is an association between cognitive decline and vascular and metabolic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

If you are concerned about changes in memory and thinking or changes in senses, behavior, mood or movement that do not seem normal in you or a family member, talk with your doctor. A physician can administer a memory screening test that can help detect problems. In addition, a doctor can perform a complete exam—which may include additional testing—to find out whether a physical- or mental-health issue is causing the problem.

Due to the complex nature of Alzheimer’s, current approaches in treatment and research focus on using more than one intervention. Treating behavioral symptoms with new drug and non-drug treatments often makes people with Alzheimer’s more comfortable and makes their care easier for caregivers. Currently, five medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but not the underlying causes of the disease. (See http://www.alz.org/research/science/alzheimers_treatment_horizon.asp)

Emerging evidence suggests there are steps we can take to help keep our brains healthier as we age, and these steps might also reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

The Alzheimer’s Association program, Maintain Your Brain®, focuses on increasing awareness of brain-healthy life choices. We know that staying physically active is essential in maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as encouraging development of new brain cells. Adopting a brain-healthy diet that is low in fat and cholesterol is recommended because high cholesterol may contribute to brain cell damage and stroke. Remaining socially active is important. This not only makes physical and mental activity more enjoyable, but it also can reduce stress levels, which helps maintain healthy connections among our brain cells. Staying mentally active strengthens brain cells and the connections between them, and may even create new nerve cells.

Hearthstone offers a free monthly Alzheimer’s Support Group, which is open to the community. For more information, please call 628-9835. The Alzheimer’s Association has an informative website at www.alz.org and a 24/7 Help Line available by calling 800-272-3900.

Sources: Alzheimer’s Association, National Institute on Aging and AARP.

Nancy Hamilton is Executive Director of Hearthstone, a Ministry of WesleyLife.

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