In 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, a month dedicated to educating community members about the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 5 million American each year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops the disease, which is the most common cause of dementia — a group of degenerative brain disorders that cause the loss of intellectual skills. Alzheimer’s disease is most common in the elderly.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the sixth-leading cause of death overall. These numbers are likely to grow in the coming decades as the population ages.
As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, it destroys the memory and other important mental functions. Those suffering from the disease may first notice an increase in forgetfulness or mild confusion, but over time, will begin to forget recent memories.
Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may find themselves repeating questions, forgetting conversations or appointments, getting lost in familiar places, forgetting the names of objects or family members, misplacing possessions, or having trouble taking part in conversations.
Early on, patients may not be aware of the presence or degree of their impairment, which is typically more evident to others. When a loved one is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, family members may notice changes in their personality and behavior, including depression, social withdrawal, mood swings, lack of trust in others, wandering, change in sleeping habits, loss of inhibitions, irritability and delusions.
Skills and habits learned early in life are among the last abilities that will be forgotten, as the disease progresses to the part of the brain where this deep, personal information is stored.
The exact causes of Alzheimer’s disease aren’t yet known, but scientists believe the disease is caused by a combination of factors, including age, family history and genetics. Research has shown that having a family member with the disease increases your likelihood to develop it. Carrying risk genes or deterministic genes can also increase the likelihood of developing the disease.
Additional risk factors suspected to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease development include being a woman, having Down syndrome, experiencing a past head trauma, or suffering from mild cognitive impairment. While lifestyle factors have not yet been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, some evidence suggests some factors increase the chance, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, obesity, lack of exercise, and a diet lacking fruits and vegetables.
During National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, take the time to learn more about the disease and how it can affect your loved ones.
If you or someone you know are exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, speak to a physician about your condition. A physician can check you for other, treatable causes of these symptoms, or other forms of dementia. While there isn’t a cure for the disease, medications and management strategies may temporarily improve symptoms, and can often slow progression. It is also important for caregivers to learn about resources in the community.
Dr. Graham Garrison is with KentuckyOne Health Neurology Associates.