The Longest Day

June is National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month. There are currently approximately 5.8 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease and that number is expected to rise to 14 million by 2050. 2/3 of Alzheimer’s patients are women, and most are over 65 years old. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the US. Alabama has the 3rd highest Alzheimer’s death rate in the nation and that number is expected to increase by 17% by 2025. While these numbers seem daunting, it is important to understand what Alzheimer’s disease is and the facts surrounding it.

Alzheimer’s is an irreversible and progressive brain disorder that causes memory issues and often motor skills problems. It is now believed that changes in the brain that signify Alzheimer’s begin decades (usually around 20 years) before people start displaying symptoms. There are 100 billion neurons in the brain that send communications to other parts of the brain and body. A brain that has Alzheimer’s has a buildup of protein called beta-amyloid plaques outside the neurons and tau tangles inside the neurons. The beta-amyloid plaques interfere with neuron communications and the tau tangles block nutrient transport in the brain. The brain of someone with Alzheimer’s will also have inflammation and can atrophy (shrink). All of this can start years before a person starts displaying Alzheimer’s symptoms.

Dementia, a term used to describe issues that impact memory functions, is sometimes used in place of ‘Alzheimer’s’ but that should not be the case. Dementia is not a specific disease, but a term used to describe overarching symptoms dealing with memory loss, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Another term commonly associated and misused when dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s is ‘MCI’ or mild cognitive impairment. MCI affects 15-20% of all people over 65 years old. MCI often presents as forgetfulness and many people who have MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life. MCI, however, can occur from life changes, such as stress, anxiety, depression, or an adverse reaction to medication. This form of MCI can diminish and the person could go back to regular cognitive functioning.

ALZ.org is a helpful resource to use when trying to learn more about this disease. The Alzheimer’s Association has created a list of 10 warning signs to look for when trying to determine if a loved one may have Alzheimer’s. They make a clear differentiation between what is a warning sign and what is normal age-related change.

Warning Sign Typical Age-Related Change
Memory loss that disrupts daily life Sometimes forgetting names or appointments but remembering them later
Challenges in planning/problem-solving Occasional errors in work or balancing checkbook
Difficulty completing familiar tasks at work, home, or leisure Needing help recording a show, programing a microwave, learning a new gadget
Confusion with time and/or place Forgetting what day it is, but remembering later
Trouble understanding visual images or spatial relationships Vision issues due to Cataracts or other age-related eye problems
New problems with words in speaking or writing Sometimes having trouble finding the right word
Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps Misplacing things and retracing last steps to try and find the item
Decreased or poor judgment Occasionally making a bad decision
Withdrawal from work or social activities Sometimes feeling weary of work, family, or social engagements
Changes in mood or personality Having a specific way of wanting things done and becoming irritable when it is not done that way

For more in depth information on these warning signs, please visit ALZ.org. They have free printable resources that are helpful when visiting the doctor to speak about memory issues. More symptoms of Alzheimer’s could be movement problems, difficulty with sense of smell, repetition, delusions/paranoia, impulsiveness, and difficulty swallowing. It is important to remember that displaying some of these signs and symptoms does not qualify as an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. You must be diagnosed by a physician.

The cause of Alzheimer’s is not currently known, just as there is no cure yet. There are many genetic factors that can go into making someone more prone to develop Alzheimer’s, and studies are being conducted to find a cause. While there is no sure-fire way to prevent Alzheimer’s there are steps to take that can help reduce your risk of cognitive decline:

  • Exercise regularly, especially cardio. Get your heartrate up.
  • Continuing formal education – take a class at the local college, community center, library
  • Quit smoking
  • Take care of your heart – eat right, lose weight (if obese), watch blood pressure
  • Protect your head from brain injury
  • Eat a balanced diet – low fat, high fiber
  • Get enough sleep – get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night
  • Positively manage emotions/stress – speak to a therapist, church leader, doctor about your emotional wellbeing, just as you would do if you were physically sick.
  • Challenge your brain – do puzzles, games (especially strategy games), read
  • Stay social – keep your brain and body active and engaged with many different people

One thing that people do not consider until it is too late is caregiving once a loved one’s health (mental or physical) is in decline. More than 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. 83% of this care comes from family, friends, or other unpaid helpers. 2/3 of these caregivers are women and 41% of them have a combined household income of less than $50,000. While providing care for a loved one can be a rewarding experience, it takes a toll on your physical and mental health. Many caregivers reported feeling depressed, anxious, sad, and overall run down. These people also had to make decisions about work changes and how to financially deal with these situations. It is important to speak about the “hard topics” while your family members are still able to make informed decisions. Have a living will, an advanced directive, and speak about how you want to live with dignity in your final days.

While all of this information seems overwhelming, progress is being made. You may be able to help in this progress. If you or a loved one is diagnosed with any form of dementia, please consider joining a clinical study. These studies focus on prevention, symptom reduction, slowing/stopping symptoms, or quality of life studies. Some of these studies can even be completed 100% online. Currently there is a variety of medications that help relieve or lessen some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. These medications include Namenda® (Memantine), Aricept® (Donepezil), Exelon® (Rivastigmine), and Namzaric® (Memantine and Donepezil). While these medications do not cure Alzheimer’s, your doctor may believe these medications to be beneficial in lessening dementia’s effects on your everyday life.

There are plenty of ways to get involved in the fight to find a cure. On June 21, 2019 the Alzheimer’s Association is having a nationwide fundraiser called The Longest Day. All across the country people are holding fundraisers for Alzheimer’s research. Visit ALZ.org to see what local fundraisers you can be a part of. Also, on October 13, 2019 AUM is hosting a Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Please sign up, volunteer, and donate to this worthy cause.

Please talk to your doctor about your family history of strokes and any of the risk factors you may have. If your doctor prescribes a medication, take it as prescribed. This can help save a life. Come into your local pharmacy and speak with your healthcare team about any medication questions you may have and also about your options for smoking cessation and blood pressure monitoring. We are here to help!

https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures
https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers-disease-fact-sheet
https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/23/health/alzheimers-disease-fast-facts/index.html
https://dailycaring.com/50-facts-about-alzheimers-infographic/


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