By Sophia L. Thomas, DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP
Alzheimer’s disease is something health care providers talk a lot about with older patients. Not only is it prevalent — but the incidence is growing — and nearly 5.8 million Americans are now living with the disease. The lack of both a definitive cause and a cure makes people feel especially uneasy. Unsurprisingly, Americans worry about losing their mental capabilities, which explains why Alzheimer’s follows only cancer on the list of most feared conditions.
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and eventually sabotages one’s ability to perform even the most basic tasks. The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) is expected to jump to 14 million by 2060. An aging population is associated with the spike, but living longer may not result in contracting ADRD. While there is still a lot we don’t know about ADRD, there’s a lot we DO know, and this is where to focus your attention.
Dementia risk boils down to a combination of genetics, family history, age, gender and lifestyle factors. Here are six facts to help you understand Alzheimer’s disease and encourage important lifestyle changes to reduce your risk.
- Alzheimer’s is not strictly a disease of the elderly, but early onset is rare.
- Alzheimer’s is gender biased. Women make up two-thirds of the Alzheimer’s population.
- Disease progression is typically slow. It can be 15 years before latent symptoms emerge, and lifestyle changes can slow Alzheimer’s progression.
- 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.
- Middle age lifestyle habits matter. Exercise is the ideal lifestyle tweak to make because it boosts blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Eating well and getting enough sleep also play important roles.
- Staying connected to others helps. Staying mentally active and making strong social connections lower the risk of cognitive decline. In addition to ADRD benefits, both help slow the aging process.
If you’re worried about Alzheimer’s disease, talk to a health care provider, like your nurse practitioner, 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 will go away with more sleep or less stress. An early diagnosis can allow time for treatment to slow the progression of the disease, but the window of opportunity is small, so don’t wait.