Ask Dr. Dylan: Alzheimer’s Awareness Month
November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, and Dr. Dylan Wyatt, an Emergency Medicine Physician at St. Luke’s, answers questions surrounding the disease that impacts millions.
What is dementia? What is Alzheimer’s and how does it affect the brain?
Dementia isn’t a disease itself, but rather a collection of symptoms caused by a disease. These are due to abnormal changes in the brain which affect the ability to think as well as emotions, behaviors, and social interactions. If these symptoms are irreversible and impact daily life and independent function we use the term “dementia”, otherwise we use other terms such as “cognitive impairment”.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for around 70% of cases. We don’t fully understand why it happens yet, it likely doesn’t have a single cause but rather multiple factors that affect each person differently.
What are the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s’?
Often the first symptoms are very mild – family and the individual affected may brush these symptoms off as “just getting older”.
The CDC put together a list of the “10 Warning Signs” for Alzheimer’s, which can help individuals and families identify potential symptoms:
- Memory Loss that disrupts daily life – extra use of sticky notes, forgetting events, or repeating oneself
- Challenges in planning or solving problems – trouble paying bills
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks – problems with cooking, using a cellphone, or shopping
- Confusion with time or place – losing track of dates or having trouble understanding an event that is happening
- Impaired understanding of spatial relations and visual images – balance issues, tripping, spilling, or dropping items at home
- New problems with words (speaking or writing) – not joining conversations, word finding difficulties
- Often misplacing objects and cannot retrace steps – Placing keys in the washing machine, can’t retrace steps to find something
- Poor judgment – falling for scams, losing ability to manage money, decreased hygiene and ability to care for pets.
- Withdrawal from social and work activities
- Changes in mood and personality – shorter temper, impulsivity, more suspicious
Alzheimer’s can be genetic. But are there any environmental factors or are there any preventative measures you can take?
Genes play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, but are not the end-all determining factor. In fact, research shows healthy lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet, regular physical activity, decreased alcohol consumption and not smoking are the best ways to avoid Alzheimer’s (with exercise being the single best change).
How is Alzheimer’s treated?
Alzheimer’s disease management is complicated and dictated by how advanced the disease is at presentation. It’s why the CDC stresses early identification and treatment, because once cognitive function is lost it’s near impossible to get back.
We use medications, lifestyle changes, and behavioral symptom management to slow the disease progression. Again, Alzheimer’s cannot be reversed, but it can be greatly slowed in its prevention.