More than Just a “Senior Moment?"
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The number of Americans living with dementia is growing rapidly. More than 5 million Americans are living with dementia today. Like heart disease, dementia is a general term for disorders of memory loss and decline in thinking or reasoning skills that interfere with one’s ability to live life independently. There are several known types of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease—which accounts for more than 60-80% of all dementia cases. One in 10 people over the age of 65 suffer from Alzheimer’s.
The death of Robin Williams in 2014, the famous comedian and actor, drew attention to Lewy body dementia, the second most common form of dementia. In addition to memory loss, Lewy body dementia symptoms often include movement problems, depression and hallucinations. The disease is difficult to diagnose because Lewy body dementia manifests like Parkinson’s disease in the early stages.
Various causes of memory loss
A number of conditions can be similar to dementia but are actually reversible causes of memory loss. These include:
- Thyroid disease
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) disorder
- Side effects of various medications
It is important symptoms of memory loss are not disregarded as simply a sign of aging. If you have memory issues, talk to your doctor about whether testing is needed to rule out reversible causes of memory loss, which account for 1-2% of those with conditions that can look like dementia.
When is it time to be concerned about memory loss?
The key difference between “senior moments” (normal memory changes with aging) and dementia is Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders are progressive with symptoms including memory loss and loss of ability to live daily life independently. Forgetting why one walked into a room or someone’s name can definitely be a part of normal aging. In fact, the symptoms can be hard to differentiate when dealing with the early stages of dementia.
Symptoms of a more serious progressive degenerative disorder per the Alzheimer’s Association can include:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
- Confusion with times or places
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- Newly developed problems speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgement
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
Prevention is key
To date, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. Thus, it is critical to maintain a healthy brain by undertaking preventive measures whenever possible. Some risk factors for dementia cannot be changed, such as age and genetics. However, less than 1% of those with Alzheimer’s disease have genetic mutations. Currently, genetic testing is not routinely recommended unless there is a family history of early-onset dementia or Huntington’s disease, a rare, inherited disease that causes progressive breakdown of the brain’s nerve cells.
Early-onset dementia is diagnosed before age 65 and can be seen as early as age 30 in certain situations. Three specific genes relate to early-onset Alzheimer’s—APP, PSEN 1 and PSEN 2. In general, if you have a family history of early-onset dementia, you should see a neurologist or geriatrician at a major medical institution who specializes in dementia.
As there is no cure, prevention is crucial. There are a variety of risk factors you can change to help you maintain your memory. It has been estimated that control of 12 major risk factors for dementia will decrease population risk for dementia by 40%. For instance, research from The Cooper Institute showed being highly physically active in mid-life decreased dementia risk by 36% in later life. Additionally, factors that protect your heart also protect your brain, such as maintaining normal blood pressure. The top risk factors within your control for good brain health include:
- Control high blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease risk factors such as diabetes
- Avoid smoking and consuming alcohol excessively
- Correct hearing loss with appropriate devices
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Avoid head trauma
- Practice regular physical activity
- Focus on cognitive training and activities such as volunteering
- Engage in consistent social activity
In summary, while you cannot change your age or family history, healthy lifestyle choices and routine preventive medical examinations are within your control. Optimal heart and brain health start with small healthy choices today and will drastically affect and improve the health of your future.
Article provided by Laura DeFina, MD, President and CEO of The Cooper Institute.
To learn about Cooper Clinic preventive exams, click here or call 866.906.2667.