Successful Aging: Why you might want to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease
June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. It’s time to increase our collective awareness of Alzheimer’s disease with the prospect of influencing healthy habits, behaviors and continued research.
Let’s start with a little history and a definition.
The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, he had a patient who showed symptoms of memory loss, language problems and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found abnormal clumps and tangled bundles of fibers. Today these abnormalities are called amyloid plaques and tangles; they are still considered main features of the disease. An additional feature of Alzheimer’s disease is the loss of connection between neurons in the brain which are important because they transmit messages between different parts of the brain and then to muscles and organs.
The disease is a progressive neurological disorder that causes the brain to shrink and brain cells to die. Since the disease is progressive, individuals experience a continuous decline in their ability to think, a decline in their behavioral and social skills and ultimately their ability to function independently.
In 2022, an estimated 6.5 million people in the U.S. age 65 and older live with the disease which is about one in nine Americans in that age group. By 2025, that age 65 and older segment will have grown with the aging of the baby boomers from 6.5 million to 7.2 million. And by 2060, it is estimated that 13.8 million people will suffer from Alzheimer’s disease barring medical breakthroughs.
Check your level of awareness by taking the following true-false quiz.
Q. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
True. The Mayo clinic reports treatments are available that temporarily improve symptoms of memory loss and problems with thinking and reasoning. However, these treatments do not stop the decline and death of brain cells.
Q. Scientists know the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
False. Scientists generally agree there is no single cause. It’s likely a combination of genetics, environmental influences and lifestyle. From a basic science perspective, scientists think the disease is caused by the abnormal build-up of proteins in and around the brain. It is unclear why this occurs.
Q. Age is the greatest risk factor for the disease.
True. The largest risk factor for late onset of the disease is age. Among those 85 and older, 33.2 percent have Alzheimer’s disease. The aging baby boom generation will only increase that percentage. To a lesser extent, other risk factors include genetics, environment and lifestyle.
Q. Dementia is one of the costliest conditions to society.
True. In 2022, the total payment for all individuals with Alzheimer’s or other dementias is estimated at $321 billion – that excludes informal caregiving. Medicare and Medicaid are expected to cover 64 percent of the total coast; out-of-pocket costs are expected to be $81 billion or 25 percent of the total payments.
Q. Alzheimer’s disease is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.
False. Alzheimer’s disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the US according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first three are heart disease, cancer and Covid-19 followed by accidents, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases and then Alzheimer’s disease.
Q. Dementia is another name for Alzheimer’s disease.
False. Dementia is not a single disease. It’s an umbrella term used for loss of memory and other cognitive abilities that interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease, the most prevalent, consists of 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Dementia also includes vascular, Lewy body dementia and more.
Q. Most caregiving is provided by professional healthcare workers.
False. Nearly half of caregiving (48 percent) is provided by more than 11 million family caregivers and friends, equivalent to $270 billion and 16 billion hours of informal care. That’s about half of Walmart’s total revenue in 2020 and 14 times the total revenue of McDonald’s the same year.
Given what we know, what can we do? Although the research is not conclusive, the literature offers several suggestions with no guarantees.
Recommendations include regular physical exercise and what is called health-heart eating: limiting saturated fats and the intake of sugar and instead eating lots of fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains. Next, keep socially connected, engage in intellectual activity and try to avoid head trauma such as those involving falls.
Let’s all increase our awareness of this disease by taking care of ourselves and helping in any way possible the millions of caregivers who support and care for those with all forms of dementia.
Stay well everyone and be kind to yourself and others.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity