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Can you beat the odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease?

Number of Americans suffering with Alzheimer’s disease today:  Approximately 5 million.

Expected number of Americans suffering with Alzheimer’s disease in just 4 years:  15 million, that’s 3 times as many.

Percentage of people over 85 with the disease:  Nearly half.

Percentage of people under 65 with the disease:  5.

At just 59, famed Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt announced this week that she has early onset dementia – the kind that leads to Alzheimer’s disease. Well known for having the most wins in college basketball history, Coach Summitt is determined to keep working as long as she can – a strategy doctors encourage.

So, here is the big question: are there things each of us can do that might decrease our risk of developing Alzheimer’s? According to Dr. Robert Gilbert, a neurologist at Piedmont Hospital, Alzheimer’s is an increasingly recognized disease because of the aging population; therefore we’ll see more and more cases. Currently there isn’t a set diagnostic test to determine Alzheimer’s, but most doctors use MRI testing to see if there are markers that indicate a possible diagnosis.

Dr. Gilbert states, “Unfortunately, by the time you see changes of atrophy in the temporal lobe (via MRI) the patient already has signs, so it’s helpful to exclude other causes.” If a patient has signs of memory loss, Dr. Gilbert says he usually sends them for further neurological testing to look at possible causes.

Dr. Gilbert says, “There are certain things one can do to reduce the risk of getting Alzheimer’s, but we know there are genetic links - that’s something we can test, to some degree, but it’s not valid clinically yet.”

Alluding to a study out recently, Dr. Gilbert explains seven things people can do in their everyday activities to significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The most important is increasing physical activity. The study also found depression, obesity and diabetes all increase the risk.

Keeping the mind active also lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Gilbert says, “We’ve known for a long time that higher functioning, smarter patients - ones that have gone through higher levels of education or stayed mentally active - seem to not have as much presentation with Alzheimer’s.”

Dr. Gilbert says that data shows that patients can reduce or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by 10-20% with lifestyle changes. He says there is a link between lifestyle habits and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, but no one knows the true cause of the disease yet.

What is the difference between Alzheimer's disease and Dementia?

Dementia is a symptom, and AD is the cause of the symptom. Alzheimer's disease causes 50% to 60% of all dementias.

How common is Alzheimer’s among people over 65?

It gets more common with age. According to the Alzheimer's Association, 10% of all people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer's disease, and as many as 50% of people over 85 have it. The number of people with the disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65. Some researchers suspect that as many as half of all people over 80 years old develop Alzheimer's disease.

What are the risk factors – factors we can’t change?

  • Age (increase with age)
  • Gender (more women)
  • Family history (> 1% cases inherited, mostly onset before 65)
  • People with Downs syndrome
  • Head injury
  • Environmental toxins
  • Low education level

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