Dementia is not an inevitable part of aging, although we couldn’t be faulted for thinking so given the high number of Americans who live with the condition. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia, affecting more than 5.5 million adults in the United States alone. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are about 50 million people worldwide with AD, and the number is increasing by 10 million every year. These numbers are going to continue climbing as the world’s population ages. We need to act now to help combat this rise – but what can we do?
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Medically and scientifically, AD is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Eventually, according to the NIH, the patient can’t carry out the simplest tasks. Realistically, it’s a disease that takes our loved ones away from us, leaving behind a shell. It can tear a family apart emotionally and financially as they watch loved ones deteriorate over time.
There is no cure yet for AD. Some medications, like galantamine and memantine were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help manage AD symptoms in the early stages, but they don’t slow down the disease progression and they don’t cure it. People with AD can live for an average of three to 10 years after their official diagnosis, but their ability to function drops to the point that the cannot do the most basic tasks, like toileting or eating.
Since there is no cure, researchers are also working to find ways to either prevent the disease onset or delay it as much as possible. A study, published last month in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, may give us a better look into what changes the average person can make to help minimize their AD risk. The researchers evaluated hundreds of studies that looked at modifiable factors, those can be changed, and interventions, what we can actually do. They looked at 134 risk factors and found 43 that could have a strong connection with AD. They narrowed them down to these top 10 risk factors:
- Lower education level
- Fewer current cognitive (mental) challenges and activity
- High body mass index later in life
- Hyperhomocysteinaemia, a condition that affects how amino acids are broken down in the body
- High stress levels
- Head trauma
- High blood pressure (hypertension) in middle age
- Orthostatic hypotension, blood pressure that drops just after you get up from a sitting or lying position
Other factors weren’t as strong, but could still play a role in AD development. They included smoking, lack of physical exercise, not getting enough sleep, having heart disease, and more.
New Blood Tests May Indicate AD Earlier
Currently, we can’t tell if someone definitely has AD until after death when the brain is evaluated in an autopsy. While still living, an AD diagnosis is based on excluding all other causes but researchers are working on tests that can tell if you have AD or might get AD.
Physicians who attended this year’s virtual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) learned about a new blood test that has had good results. The researchers said they developed a “highly accurate” blood test that measures levels of p-tau217, a protein and marker of AD. More study is needed, but early results are promising. “The p-tau217 levels were increased about seven-fold in Alzheimer’s, and, in individuals with a gene causing Alzheimer’s, the levels started to increase already 20 years before onset of cognitive impairment,” the presenters said. Although the test still must be verified and confirmed, the researchers believe that it will allow people to be diagnosed earlier and, with new clinical trials, new treatments may be discovered.
So, What Does This Mean for the Average Person?
No matter how hard we try to prevent illness or injury, there are no guarantees prevention will happen. People who wear seatbelts can still be injured in a car accident – but their chances for survival are better with the seatbelt than without. The same holds true for trying to prevent diseases like AD. By living healthier lives and making lifestyle changes earlier in life, we may reduce our risks, especially if we have a family history of AD. But even more telling, the risk factors for AD are also risk factors for other diseases and conditions. People who exercise, manage their stress levels and blood pressure, treat their diabetes, and don’t smoke lower their risks of developing heart disease and strokes, for example.
Speak with your doctor about lifestyle improvements you can make. Starting slowly bit by bit will increase your chances of succeeding with these changes – trying too hard too fast often leads to giving up. Check with your insurance company if you’re covered for sessions with a dietitian to improve your diet, an athletic therapist to get moving, or a counselor to help manage stress and/or stop smoking.