By RANDAL C. HILL
In 1983, when Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s
Awareness Month, fewer than 2 million Americans suffered from this insidious
disease. Today that figures hovers around 5.5 million, and nearly two-thirds of
those affected are female.
The cause of 60 to 80 percent of all cases of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually first appears as short-term memory loss and gradually progresses to the point where patients become nonfunctional.
The proportion of affected people by age in the U.S. is: under 65, 4 percent; 65-74 years, 15 percent; 75-84 years, 44 percent; 85 and over, 38 percent. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in America. Right now, there is no cure.
Symptoms include forgetting familiar names, dates and events. Tasks can take longer to complete, and following directions becomes more difficult. One loses track of time, forgets where one is, how one got there. Objects are commonly misplaced. An individual may become confused, suspicious, even depressed.
The causes of Alzheimer’s are poorly understood, but at least some of the risk is believed to be genetic, with many genes usually being involved. Genetic differences have been identified in 1 to 5 percent of established Alzheimer’s cases.
Once an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is confirmed, those with the disease can expect to live, on average, about eight years. The good news is that some treatments can now slow down the inexorable progression.
You can help early-stage Alzheimer’s patients by keeping daily routines simple, focusing on one thing at a time, and making the patient feel safe and comfortable. Never yell or argue with them; speak in a calm voice.
There are things you can do to lower your own risk. Be proactive and stimulate your mind by reading, playing board games, doing crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument or learning a new language. Treat any hearing loss or vision loss.
Get adequate sleep; fewer than five hours per night may raise your risk of dementia. Keeping your blood pressure within normal limits could lower your risk by about 15 percent. Maintain a healthy weight, starting in midlife. A Mediterranean or Japanese diet is recommended. Exercise every day; walking is always the number-one recommended activity.
Quit smoking now.
None of these recommendations has been scientifically proven to prevent the onslaught of Alzheimer’s, but such lifestyle changes can at least enhance your overall quality of life. You’ll be giving yourself the benefit of a healthier, more enjoyable life, while at the same time hopefully avoiding this cruelest of diseases.