Because June was Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, I thought it would be helpful to compile a primer on the topic. Although most have a basic knowledge of the subject and know someone who has suffered from some form of dementia, there is confusion about the condition itself.
The World Health Organization has determined that approximately 50 million people worldwide have dementia, with 10 million new cases being diagnosed each year. To put this in perspective, it is estimated that approximately 5-8 percent of people who are age 60 and over have some form of dementia. It is considered one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people worldwide. Dementia has been defined as a chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders, personality changes and impaired reasoning. According to the National Institutes of Health, various disorders and factors contribute to the development of dementia.
Neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form comprising approximately 60-70 percent of cases), frontotemporal disorders (FTD), Lewy body dementia (DLB), vascular contributions and mixed dementias (a combination of two or more types of dementia) result in progressive and irreversible loss of neurons and brain function.
Many medical conditions can cause serious memory problems. Among them are reaction to medication, depression/stress/anxiety, alcohol use, blood clots/tumors/infections, head injury or thyroid/kidney/liver problems. Some of these conditions can be reversed, resulting in partial or total cognitive improvement.
Other conditions, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease, Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or HIV-associated, are linked to dementia as well.
There are risk factors that can contribute to dementia. Some can be influenced by changes in our behavior, such as diet and exercise, excessive alcohol use, smoking, sleep, activities that can result in brain injury (i.e. contact sports, etc.), depression/anxiety/stress, diabetes, weight, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Some risk factors cannot be affected by our behavior, such as age, family history and genetics.
While there is no sure way to prevent dementia, there are positive lifestyle choices you can make to assure better overall health and avoid preventable illness. Some recommended ways are to keep your mind active, stay physically and socially active, stop smoking, seek out preventive care, eat healthy, drink alcohol sparingly, get a good night’s sleep, treat health conditions (hearing loss, diabetes, high blood pressure/cholesterol, depression, etc.) and take prescriptions as ordered.
The NIH is expected to spend $3.1 billion on Alzheimer’s research in 2021 with the goal of better understanding the causes, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. While no cure yet exists for Alzheimer’s disease, there are medications available to slow cognitive decline in some stages of the disease. The hope is that all this research will yield findings that transform the disease into a manageable condition.
As with most medical conditions, early detection is crucial. An early diagnosis will allow you to take advantage of any medical treatment available for your particular condition and gives you time to make plans for your future needs and care. The ability to make plans for how you wish to proceed with your life, rather than having others make those choices for you, is imperative and will allow others to advocate on your behalf as you choose.
As with any illness, those afflicted with one of these conditions especially need the support and care of family, friends, and community as do their caregivers. We were not designed to function in isolation, and it can be additionally debilitating to be dealing with such issues alone. Be sure to let those around you know what you are going through and allow them to be of assistance and support by giving them suggestions on how best to do so.