Many in the preparedness community are mature enough (and prepared enough) to reach their “golden years” at a time when a major disaster causes things to go South. When mental status also starts to go South, it means that the family medic should know the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and have a plan of action to help prevent it or, at least, slow its progress.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is characterized by the accumulation of two types of protein in the brain: tangles (called “tau”) and plaques (called “amyloid-beta”). These can be identified using blood and urine tests as well as diagnostic imaging like CT, MRIs, or PET scans of the brain.
Just because you forgot where you left your car parked doesn’t mean you need these tests or have Alzheimer’s. That’s a common part of aging. If you forgot what a car is or why you’re standing in a parking lot, however, that’s a different story. Frequent memory loss, confusion about locations, taking longer to accomplish normal tasks, trouble handling money, and personality changes are all possible signs.
It’s not known for certain what causes Alzheimer’s diseases, although people with heart disease, diabetes, and certain other issues seem more likely to get it. 30% of people have genetics that predispose them to it, but only 1% have a marker that means they are certain to get it. Many people, especially older folks, have suspicious signs for it on imaging or other tests, but seem to function normally.
Even though those who develop dementia may have genetic issues, multiple other factors are likely in play. These include age, underlying medical conditions, and lifestyle. You can’t change your age, but you can change your lifestyle.
There’s no pill or injection that prevents Alzheimer’s disease, but there are a number of ways thought to decrease your risk for dementia. Some have harder scientific data behind them than others. They include:
Getting enough sleep. A good sleep pattern can help prevent Alzheimer’s by allowing clearance of beta-amyloids from the brain. 7-8 hours should suffice.
Engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise. Elevating your heart rate increases blood flow to the brain as well as the rest of your body. Several studies have found that physical activity reduces cognitive decline.
Keeping your mind active. Take a class online, at a local college or a community center. Do crosswords, word puzzles, or other things to challenge yourself. Other kinds of challenges can also keep your mind sharp. Card games or board games will help. Building something with your hands is also good.
Stopping smoking. It seems like everything is made better if you stop smoking. Having oxygen compete with smoke in your lungs means less oxygen goes to the brain.
Keeping track of medical problems. Obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes don’t just impact your physical health. These medical issues can damage your mental health as well. Take care of your heart, and your brain might follow.
Avoiding physical injuries. Older folks can have some pretty bad falls if they’re not careful. Brain injury can raise your risk of dementia. Wear a seat belt while driving and use a helmet when playing contact sports or riding a bike.
Eating a healthy diet. Good nutrition can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Although research on diet and cognitive function is limited, certain diets (including Ketogenic diets) , are thought to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s . The ketogenic diet is a very high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, which has a fasting-like effect that brings the body into a state of ketosis.
The presence of ketone bodies (produced during the metabolism of fats in a Keto diet) appears to have a protective effect on brain cells. They have been associated with improved brain function in elderly Alzheimer patients. The best outcomes are seen in earlier cases. If Keto isn’t for you, the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet has been recommended as options.
Avoiding mood disorders. A history of mental health problems is linked to Alzheimer’s. Depression is often seen in those at risk. For stress, It’s important to stay socially engaged and seek out enjoyable activities. If you like to sing, join a band or the church choir. If you like animals, volunteer at the local shelter.
At present, there is no cure or treatment that reverses or stops the mental decline associated with Alzheimer’s. There are medicines, however, that can ease some of the symptoms in some people. They may slow down how fast the disease progresses. According to WebMD, these are the most promising:
Aricept (donepezil): The only treatment approved by the FDA for all stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Razadyne (galantamine): Used for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.
Exelon (rivastigmine): Used for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Available in oral forms, you can also wear a skin patch.
Namenda (Memantine): May be effective to fight moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s disease. This drug may be used in conjunction with one of the above drugs. A combination drug, Namzaric, includes memantine and donepezil.
A number of natural products have been proposed to help, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, and ginkgo biloba. More research is needed before one of these becomes a standard treatment.
Alzheimer’s disease caused the tragic end of many brilliant careers, including that of President Ronald Reagan. His poignant letter to the American people in his elder years brought needed attention to the plight of those with dementia. Hopefully, a cure will one day be developed, but for now, close attention to the mental status of older family members may slow down worsening of the disease. We’ll discuss the various stages of Alzheimer’s in the near future.
Joe Alton MD
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