The uncertainty of aging with memory loss can lead to worries about Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. Although progress is being made in research, the diagnosis is still a terminal one.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that more than 5 million in the U.S. have the disease, and that the number will climb to 16 million people (or more) by 2050. It is also one that not only costs hundreds of billions of dollars to treat, but also accounts for more in unpaid care provided by family and friends. But there’s a lot more to know about Alzheimer’s disease, said Dr. Mary Rudyk, of Senior Health Associates in Wilmington.
1. An important step in dealing with Alzheimer’s is talking to your physician. “Part of the problem is that by the time we diagnose it, there are only so many agents we can use,” Dr. Rudyk said. Earlier intervention, though, can help guide some preventative measures. And memory loss doesn’t always mean dementia. Conditions such as depression, urinary tract infections, vitamin and thyroid deficiencies and brain tumors can have symptoms similar to dementia. Tests and screenings can help establish what’s happening with your memory.
2. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-80 percent of dementia cases. Dementia is a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. And Alzheimer’s disease, which causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior, accounts for the majority of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time. Some early warning signs are experiencing challenges with planning and problem solving, confusion with time and place, and new problems with words in speaking or writing.
3. Alzheimer’s and dementia aren’t a normal part of aging. But age is a risk factor for the disease. The increase in the aging population is one reason that new cases of Alzheimer’s and other dementia is expected to rise in coming decades. In North Carolina, 160,000 people age 65 and older have the disease in 2017. But that number is expected to increase to 180,000 in 2020 and to 210,000 cases by 2025. Women, African-Americans and Hispanics also have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
4. Bill Gates is putting his money into research. In November, the billionaire made the commitment to invest $50 million in the Dementia Discovery Fund, a government-and-industry venture capital fund, to investigate new ways to treat the disease. According to his website, the goals are understanding better how Alzheimer’s unfolds, diagnosing it earlier, and pursuing multiple approaches to halt the disease.
5. There are other reasons to be optimistic. “It’s great news that Gates is doing this,” Dr. Rudyk said. “I think what will learn is that there are multiple factors that lead to the disease.” That means that there are likely many methods of prevention. She already recommends her patients include exercising, including exercises for the mind, in their plan. “We can talk about a number of different approaches,” she said. And for those who’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it can also be important to have a positive attitude. “Focus on what someone can do, what tasks they can manage,” she said. “So they can still have that sense of accomplishment.”