James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.
1. SAY WHAT? “Dementia” is a general term for a condition in which individuals experience a loss of their memory and other intellectual abilities (e.g., behavior and thinking) to a degree that interferes with their capacity to engage in activities of daily life. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, a disease that accounts for up to 80% of dementia cases.
2. A SLEEPING GIANT. Whereas the number of deaths attributed to some of the other leading causes of death seems to be falling, as a result of better treatment and prevention efforts, the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease is rising. This tragic trend is particularly troubling because the disease is always fatal. In fact, the CDC estimates that close to more than 80,000 deaths occur annually because of Alzheimer’s disease.
3. A BREAKDOWN IN THE SYSTEM. The human brain has approximately 100 billion nerve cells, which are interconnected into various groups to perform certain tasks (e.g., thinking, learning, remembering, seeing, smelling, etc.). To function properly, these groups of brain cells operate like tiny units—processing and storing information and communicating with other cells. The general hypothesis in the scientific community is that Alzheimer’s disease somehow precludes the various units from operating as they should. Furthermore, a breakdown in one unit (system) leads to problems in other areas. Subsequently, as the damage spreads, irreversible changes in the brain occur, as the cells lose their ability to perform their jobs.
4. THE HEART-HEAD CONNECTION. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease seems to be linked to many of the conditions that are related to the heart or blood vessels (e.g., high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels). In fact, some studies indicate that up to 80% of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also suffer from cardiovascular disease. Not surprisingly, a number of experts believe that controlling cardiovascular risk factors may be the single most helpful and cost-effective way to protect brain health.
5. A PRESCRIPTION FOR HEALTH. Many experts believe that exercising on a regular basis can be a beneficial strategy for lowering a person’s risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease, given that brain cells appear to benefit directly from the increase in the flow of blood and oxygen that occurs when a person is physically active.
6. CHANGE IS INEVITABLE. Similar to the rest of an individual’s body, a person’s brain changes with age. At some point in their lives, people eventually will, on occasion, experience a degree of slowed thinking and difficulties with remembering certain things. It is important to note that having problems with memory does not mean that the individual has Alzheimer’s disease. Memory loss can be caused by a number of reasons.
7. TROUBLING SIGNS. Because Alzheimer’s disease changes typically begin in the part of the brain that affects learning, in fact, difficulty recalling newly learned information is the most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. As the disease progresses through the brain, the individual will experience ever-increasing symptoms, including disorientation, changes in mood and behavior, unfounded suspicions about other people, and, eventually, difficulties with speaking, swallowing, and walking.
8. CHANCES ARE. Every person is at risk for contracting Alzheimer’s disease. The primary risk factor for the disease is aging. Once a person reaches 65 years, that individual’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease doubles every 5 years, eventually reaching a point at age 85 years where the risk is nearly 50%. Another risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is family history. As such, individuals with a close relative with Alzheimer’s disease are more likely to develop the disease.
9. MIRROR IMAGE. Although Alzheimer’s disease primarily affects older adults, it also can affect individuals as young as in their 30s. When the disease affects a person who is younger than 65 years, it is referred to as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The symptoms, treatment options, and long-term prognosis for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease tend to mirror closely those of other forms of Alzheimer’s disease.
10. ONE STEP AT A TIME. At the present time, no known cure exists for Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have not been developed that can stop the disease from spreading. In some cases, however, ways to slow down the worsening of symptoms and improve the quality of life for those individuals with Alzheimer’s disease have been found. Even more promising is the fact that scientists recently have developed a blood test that may be able to predict the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease in a particular person.