Alzheimer's Not an Elderly-Only Disease

Alzheimer's Not an Elderly-Only Disease

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For too long the elderly have taken it on the chin, being on the receiving end of one-liners poking fun at their diminishing cognitive abilities. Not only has the teasing shown a lack of empathy for our elders, it also has revealed insufficient popular awareness about the true nature of debilitating diseases that affect cognition, such as Alzheimer's.

Heads up, folks: While Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are typically diagnosed in those 65 and over, more cases are coming to light of people in their 40s and 50s showing early signs of the disease. Case in point is former University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, the winningest Division I coach, male or female, at the time of her retirement less than a year after she announced at age 59 she had early early-onset (aka younger-onset) Alzheimer's.

Other prominent Alzheimer's sufferers over the last 20 years have included former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, actor Charles Bronson, singer Perry Como, and prominent Chinese chef and TV personality Joyce Chen -- although none were as young as Summitt was when she was first diagnosed.

Alzheimer's disease is an "irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks," according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). In late-stage Alzheimer's, victims are unable to engage in a conversation or respond to their environment. Survival after a diagnosis can range from four to 20 years, depending on the patient's age and other health factors. Although there is no known cure for Alzheimer's, symptoms are treatable and research for a cure continues.

Ironically, although Alzheimer's gradually destroys a person's quality of life, a diagnosis can't be confirmed until after the patient is dead. Autopsies typically will show significant shrinkage of the brain from the countless deaths of brain cells, as well as abnormalities referred to at mayoclinic.org as plaques ("clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid" that destroy brain cells in several ways) and tangles ("threads of tau protein twist into abnormal tangles inside brain cells, leading to failure of the transport system"). A New York Times in-depth report identified a third brain abnormality as loss of nerve cell connections.

No definitive causes of Alzheimer's have been identified, with experts generally saying it typically involves a combination of genetic, environmental, health and lifestyle factors. Doctors can use a variety of methods to diagnose Alzheimer's such as extensive questioning of the patient, memory tests, standard medical tests and even brain scans to at least rule out other causes of the symptoms.

Signs that a person might be slipping toward Alzheimer's go well beyond common mental lapses such as locking your keys inside the car and forgetting where you put your glasses. The red flag goes up in scenarios such as no longer being able to keep track of monthly bills, asking the same question several times over (forgetting you already asked it), or repeated difficulty completing simple tasks at work. Those are among 10 symptoms generally regarded by health experts as harbingers of Alzheimer's, any of which is cause enough to at least seek out a health professional's counsel.

Caution should be exercised, though. Some people having memory issues might have a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), in which symptoms don't interfere with their everyday lives. Older people with MCI, the NIA says, however, are at greater risk of getting Alzheimer's, but not all of them do.

Certain lifestyle alterations, according to the New York Times, might help prevent Alzheimer's. These include staying mentally, physically and socially active; eating a diet healthy for the brain and heart; and maintaining a healthy weight. Regular physical exercise could be a key factor: A recent Los Angeles Times article reported several studies that linked regular participation in aerobic-conditioning classes to improvements in cognitive functions among older adults with previously diagnosed cognitive impairments. These findings, said Alzheimer's researcher Laura Baker (Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center), "strongly suggest a potent lifestyle intervention such aerobic exercise can impact Alzheimer's-related changes in the brain."

Here's hoping advances in Alzheimer's diagnoses and treatments will give our elderly, and even those a bit younger, the last laugh.