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June 11, 2019

Getting Your Head Around Alzheimer’s  

Six Facts to Help You Understand the Most Feared Diagnosis

Joyce Knestrick, PhD, CRNP, FAANP

Alzheimer’s is something I talk a lot about with patients. Not only is it prevalent – but the incidence is growing, and the lack of both a definitive cause and a cure makes people feel especially uneasy. Unsurprisingly, Americans worry about losing their mental capabilities twice as much as their physical capabilities, which explains why Alzheimer’s is the most feared condition, with cancer trailing behind as a distant second.  

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually sabotages the ability to perform even the most basic tasks. Today there are 5.8 million people living with the condition, but that number is expected to jump to 14 million by 2050. An aging population is largely to blame for the spike, but living longer is not an Alzheimer’s sentence. While there is still much we don’t know about Alzheimer’s, there’s a lot we DO know, and this is where I try to focus attention. 

Alzheimer’s risk boils down to a combination of genetics, family history, age, gender and lifestyle factors. Here are six useful facts that I share with patients to curb anxiety over Alzheimer’s and encourage important lifestyle changes to reduce risk.   

  1. Alzheimer’s is not strictly an elderly disease, but early onset is rare. Nine of out 10 people experience symptoms after the age of 60, while only five percent have symptoms earlier.  
  2. Alzheimer’s is gender biased. Women make up two-thirds of the Alzheimer’s population, but this is mostly because women live an average of five years longer.  
  3. Alzheimer’s progression is typically slow. It can be 15 years before latent symptoms emerge, and lifestyle changes can slow the progression.  
  4. There’s a heart connection. The same conditions that increase risk for cardiovascular disease like diabetes and high blood pressure also raise your Alzheimer’s risk. In fact, 80 percent of people with Alzheimer’s also have cardiovascular disease.  
  5. Middle age lifestyle habits matter. Exercise is the most convincing lifestyle tweak to make because it boosts blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Eating well and getting enough sleep also play important roles.   
  6. Staying connected helps. Staying mentally active and making strong social connections have also shown to lower the risk of cognitive decline. In addition to Alzheimer’s benefits, both help slow the aging process.   

If you’re worried about Alzheimer’s, talk to your provider or nurse practitioner (NP) about your risk and things you can do today to keep your brain sharp as you age. Everyone forgets names and misplaces keys, but a change in your mental function is not something to ignore in hopes that it goes away with more sleep or less stress. Most seniors believe it is important to have their thinking and memory checked, but only 16% get regular assessments. An early diagnosis allows time for treatment to slow the progression of the disease, but the window of opportunity can be small, so don’t wait.