Spotting Alzheimer’s early: The signs and risks

November 24, 2014
Older man sitting in a chair.

Alzheimer’s disease affects roughly five million Americans.

November is national Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and a good time to brush up on the basic facts of a disease that affects approximately five million Americans. Of those five million, 500,000 people die from complications with Alzheimer’s disease every year, making it the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Luckily, knowing the warning signs and risk factors can help you catch the onset of the pervasive disease early.

The difference between the signs of Alzheimer’s and normal aging

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are ten early warning signs for Alzheimer’s that people should be aware of:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
  3. Difficulty in completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
  4. Confusion with time or place
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  6. New problems with words in writing or speaking
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  8. Decreased judgment
  9. Withdrawal from social activities or work
  10. Changes in mood or behavior

At first glance, many of these signs seem like they can be associated with normal aging – after all, who doesn’t forget things as they grow older? However, according to Dai Lu, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy with a research focus on Alzheimer’s, there is a significant difference between temporary lapses in memory and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia affect much more than a person’s memory. They affect their ability to perform cognitive functions. It’s a much deeper effect,” Lu explained.

A person who is growing older may forget where they put their keys but can retrace their steps to find them, but a person suffering from Alzheimer’s forgets how to retrace their steps and their keys may be found in an unusual place, such as a candy jar or refrigerator.

“It’s the difference between forgetting to turn off the radio, and forgetting how to turn off the radio,” Lu said.

The risk factors

Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease is hard to diagnose until it progresses into its later stages, but knowing the risk factors can help you recognize if you or someone you know is predisposed towards developing it.

The risk factors for Alzheimer’s are:

  • Age – Most individuals with the disease are 65 or older. The chance of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after 65.
  • Family History – An individual with a family member who has Alzheimer’s is more likely to develop the disease. If more than one family member has been diagnosed, then the risk increases.
  • Head trauma – There may be a link between serious head injuries and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the future seems to be especially prevalent if the trauma is repeated or involves loss of consciousness.
  • Heart health – There seems to be a growing connection between brain and heart health. Individuals with conditions related to poor heart health (e.g., high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol) have greater instances of Alzheimer’s.

Some additional risk factors also include:

  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Poorly controlled diabetes
  • Poor diet, lacking in fruits and vegetables

“In instances of family history, people can get tested to see if they have any of the genetic risks,” Lu advised. “We know that certain proteins like the Amyloid precursor protein (APP), Presenilin-1 (PS-1), Presenilin-2 (PS-2) and Apolipoprotein E-e4 (APOE4) are all associated with hereditary Alzheimer’s.”

Lu’s research involves identifying drugs that can help inhibit the aggravations of such proteins, which tend to cause plaque to form in the brain and can lead to inflammation and a decrease in cognitive function of the brain. With genetic testing, individuals can be informed if they have any of these proteins, which put them at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

Next steps

If you or someone you know begins exhibiting the early signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia, Lu suggests that you make an appointment with a specialist to develop a treatment plan. Your primary care physician will be able to refer you to one, if you do not know of a specialist in your area.

During the appointment, the doctor will typically evaluate:

  • Whether there is impaired memory or cognitive skills
  • Whether changes in personality or behaviors are exhibited
  • The degree to which memory or thinking impairment has occurred
  • How cognitive problems affect the individual’s ability to function in daily life

“Currently, there are no drugs to stop or prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, but there are some medications that provide temporary relief. However, their benefits appear to diminish after six years,” Lu stated.

Many research labs, including Lu’s laboratory, are working on finding and developing drugs that can help halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. At present, Lu’s research involves identifying drugs to prevent the misfolding of certain proteins that, upon aggregation, can cause inflammation or other damage to brain cells and decrease cognitive function of the brain, which is one of the pathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

So what can an average aging adult do in the meantime? Limit risk factors that you are able to, like avoiding activities that could increase the risk for head trauma. Remember to buckle your seatbelt in the car or wear a helmet whenever you participate in a sport. Participating more frequently in mentally challenging leisure activities, such as reading, playing games or musical instruments and involvement in social interactions can help stem the progression of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Leading a healthy lifestyle is key to healthy aging and may provide some form of protection against Alzheimer’s.

For more information please visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s website.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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