Published on: July 31, 2015
by Erin Schumaker for Huffington Post:
When we surveyed 50-something women about their health fears, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease came up again and again (other top concerns included chronic illness and arthritis). Some women had parents or grandparents who had suffered from the disease. Others worried about how their memory loss could affect their loved ones.
“Because age is the greatest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease, we often think of it as an old person’s disease,” said Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and author of the book Two Weeks To A Younger Brain.
“The majority of cases do strike people older than 65,” Small said. But, he noted, many of the health behaviors that can lower risk and protect against mental decline, such as regular exercise, proper diet, mental stimulation and stress management, need to start well before the years start to pile up.
Know your risk
Two-thirds of Alzheimer’s victims are women, partly because women tend to live longer than men. Women are also more susceptible to depression, which is a risk factor for dementia. But that doesn’t mean that Alzheimer’s is an inevitable fact of life. “There’s compelling scientific evidence that genetics is not the full story when it comes to risk for Alzheimer’s,” Small said. “In fact, for the average person [without a strong family history of Alzheimer’s], non-genetic factors may be more important than genetic factors.”
That’s not to say genetics aren’t important. Early-onset Alzheimer’s, the type Julianne Moore’s character had in last year’s drama “Still Alice,” occurs in people between the ages for 30 and 60. It represents less than 5 percent of all Alzheimer’s cases, but it’s often genetic. A gene mutation causes familial Alzheimer’s cases, and if that gene runs in your family, your chance of inheriting the mutation is about 50/50.
Early diagnosis is key
For the majority of people, however, Alzheimer’s is a very gradual process. “When the disease begins — and it’s subtle — people are still able to compensate for the problem,” Small said. “We can actually see their brains [using brain imaging] working harder to perform.”
Over time, people’s ability to compensate for their memory loss breaks down. “That’s when people need help from others — they develop dementia,” he said.
That’s not to say you should treat occasional forgetfulness, such as misplacing your keys or forgetting an acquaintance’s name, as a sign of impending dementia. Normal aging involves memory decline, according to Small. “When it’s beginning to impair everyday life, that becomes a problem,” he said.
“An example of normal aging would be forgetting where you park your car on occasion. Where it’s more of a problem is forgetting where you parked your car twice a month.”
And like most medical conditions, it’s smart to check with a doctor if you’ve noticed changes in your memory or cognition. “Anytime someone is concerned, it’s better to ask for help and advice,” Small said. “I’d rather reassure somebody that this is normal, than wait until it’s more advanced.”
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