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Successful Aging: What you need to know about Alzheimer’s disease

Dear readers,

November was Alzheimer’s Awareness month, which was designated by President Reagan in 1983. Given the importance of the topic, here are some distilled facts (or myths) in the form of a true-false quiz. Being aware and knowledgeable about this disease is important for our own health and for those whom we love, reminding us to take preventative action to the extent possible.

1. Almost six million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease.

2. One in three older adults die while having Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

3. The cause of the disease is known; the cure is not.

4. Where you live matters.

5. There is little we can do to reduce risks of Alzheimer’s disease.

6. The greatest risk factor is biological aging.

7. Alzheimer’s disease is part of normal aging.

8. Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive disease in America.

9. Those with the disease live about two years after diagnosis.

10. Most care is provided by unpaid caregivers.


1. True. The more exact number is 5.8 million; in 1983, that number was two million. Today, someone develops the disease every 65 seconds.

2. True. One in three older adults who die each year has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia; this disease kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

3. False. Unfortunately, there is no known cause or cure for the disease. In some cases, genetics plays a role. A number of drugs have been reported to slow down the disease progression.

4. True. A recent USC study found a connection between air pollution, Alzheimer-like brain changes and memory declines. The study consisted of women in their 70s and 80s who were exposed to fine particles from air pollution. These women had memory decline and physical brain changes; women who breathed clean air did not.

5. False. We know that risks can be mitigated with regular exercise, controlling one’s blood pressure, diabetes, keeping one’s brain active and being engaged. Note, there still is no guarantee.

6. True. Matt Kaeberlein at Seattle’s University of Washington writes in the November “Public Policy and Aging Report,” “The effects of aging dwarfs all other risk factors combined.” Some of the other risk factors are genetics, lifestyle and environment.

7. False. Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging; it is a progressive degenerative brain disease. A small minority of researchers argue that’s not the case. Although the exact causes are not fully understood, the problem involves brain proteins that don’t function normally, resulting in damaged neurons.

8. True. Alzheimer’s disease costs more than heart disease and cancer. The current cost for the U.S. in caring for those 65 years and older with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is about $290 billion that includes Medicare, Medicaid, long-term care, hospice and out of pocket spending. One in every five dollars in Medicare spending is spent on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

9. False. Given the slow and insidious progression of the disease, people age 65 and older survive on average four to eight years yet some live as long 20 years.

10. True. Eighty-three percent of help comes from family members, friends or other unpaid caregivers. Unpaid caregivers provide 18.5 billion hours of informal care valued at $233.9 billion.

This is a difficult story. Although nothing so far has been proven to prevent or delay the disease researchers are identifying some promising strategies that involve drugs, lifestyle, diabetes, sleep, vitamins, social engagement and more.

So, what is the most we can do? Maintain or increase our physical activity, keep our blood pressure controlled and stay intellectually and cognitively engaged. Add to that have regular physical check-ups and, when appropriate, cognitive assessments. Until causes and cures are determined, The National Institute on Aging recommends that we keep our brain healthy and our body fit. That seems to be a reasonable assignment. We remain hopeful. For more information and support, go to

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