According to the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Aging, over 5.1 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s Disease. However, as the population ages, the number of cases is expected to climb. Here, Mark Sedler, MD, MPH, Medical Director of the Alzheimer's Assistance Center of Long Island, along with Darlene Jyringi, MPS, Gerontologist and Program Director, Alzheimer's Disease Assistance Center of Long Island, address some of the most common questions about Alzheimer’s.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age 60.
Although we still don’t know how the Alzheimer’s disease process begins, it seems likely that damage to the brain starts a decade or more before problems show up. During this period, while people may be free of symptoms, toxic changes are taking place in the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins form amyloid plaques and tau tangles throughout the brain, and once-healthy neurons begin to work less efficiently. Over time, these neurons lose their ability to function and communicate with each other, and eventually they die.
As it progresses, the damage spreads to a nearby structure in the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential in forming memories. As more neurons die, affected brain regions begin to shrink. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.
Isn’t it a natural consequence of aging?
No. While infrequent, mild memory loss may be a part of aging; Alzheimer's is not. That said, the greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimer's are 65 and older. However, up to 5 percent of people with the disease have early-onset Alzheimer's (also known as younger-onset), which often appears in the 40s or 50s.
What are the most common signs?
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, work or during leisure time
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking and writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
Is there a cure?
Alzheimer's has no cure, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continues, some of which is happening right here at Stony Brook. Right now, the best option is to diagnose it in its earliest stages and start medication. Although it cannot stop Alzheimer's from progressing, it can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer's.
What can I do if I suspect a loved one has Alzheimer’s?
Get an evaluation as early as possible. The Alzheimer’s Disease Assistance Center of Long Island can start the process with an initial phone intake with the family, followed by psychometric testing on the patient and a full medical assessment. The physician evaluation takes about two hours and may include a number of tests such as cognitive testing, brain imaging and lab work-ups.
If dementia or Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, the team will put together an individualized plan of care, communicate with the patient’s primary care physician, refer the patient and family to community resources such as elder attorneys, adult day care, and respite programs, and make recommendations on activities such as driving that the patient should or should not do. As we follow the family over time, we continually adjust the plan of care as the patient changes.
In addition, the center also runs weekly support groups for families. The purpose of these weekly meetings is to give guidance and coping skills for the caregivers, provide welcome relief, camaraderie, and opportunities to share information and advice on what to expect. We want people to know that there is help out there for families as well as patients and that we can improve the quality of life for patients and caregivers.
Any advice on prevention?
Exercise. It’s the number one way to keep the brain healthy. Rule of thumb: If it is good for your heart, it is good for your brain.
For more information on Alzheimer's Disease or to make an appointment, please call Darlene M. Jyringi, MPS at 631-632-3160/
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