Among the concerns of older Americans, Alzheimer’s disease tops the list. And that’s understandable. Researchers are making strides in understanding Alzheimer’s, but a cure remains elusive for the progressive, memory-robbing disease.
“With Alzheimer’s, there seem to be many genes involved,” says Dr. John Campbell with Mercy Clinic Geriatrics and chief of geriatrics and geriatric education at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. “There seem to be genes that predispose somebody (to the disease) but don’t cause it, so some people with the same genetic makeup, like twins, develop Alzheimer’s, while others don’t. We’re trying to figure out what these genes do and how they come together to predispose some people.”
A rare form of Alzheimer’s disease that manifests in people younger than 65 does seem to be dependent on a single gene mutation, and researchers are studying these individuals to learn more about the genetic component of the disease. However, most people younger than 65 who are concerned about memory loss have other types of problems that mimic dementia.
“Once every couple of weeks, somebody will come into my office really concerned about memory problems and we do some memory testing and find that they’re OK,” Campbell says. Memory slips may be due to normal aging processes, depression, anxiety, drug interactions or sleep deprivation, among other things, he says, stressing that Alzheimer’s disease is rare among people younger than 65.
Assessment and diagnosis is important, as frightening as it may be, says Debra Bryer, early stage coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association St. Louis Chapter. “From my experience of working with people who have this disease, there are medications available now that are not perfect, but if they work for people, we hope they may slow the progression of the disease,” she says. Another important aspect of diagnosis is the ability to plan, participate in individual and family support programs, and volunteer to participate in research studies.
Bryer emphasizes that the Alzheimer’s Association offers a variety of individualized programming for clients and families. “When you call the 24/7 helpline, you’re getting a service that’s tailored to your individual needs,” she says. “The same is true for our care consultations, which provide an opportunity for the family and the person with memory loss, if appropriate, to sit down with one of our professional staff members who will focus advising on an individual family situation.”
Campbell advises people to use current preventive strategies to help reduce their risk. “Anything that’s good for the heart—a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet, regular aerobic exercise—seems to also be good for the brain,” he says. He also suggests activities that stretch the intellect, “laying down and processing new memories.” Finding subjects that you want to learn more about and taking a class or studying the topic may be somewhat memory protective.