Brace yourself, as a tidal wave of Alzheimer's disease cases are on the horizon. "It's going to overwhelm our country and the world," says Kim Petersen, MD, a geriatrics specialist and board member for the Alzheimer's & Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin.
"Thirty million U.S. baby boomers will get it," adds Dr. Petersen. The disease is strongly correlated with age, as half of those age 85 and older have either Alzheimer's or another memory disorder known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The earlier these problems are diagnosed, the better able doctors will be positioned to help.
Signs of Alzheimer's Disease include difficulty learning and retaining information, language problems and motor memory changes, such as the inability to dress oneself.
Three kinds of medication have been found to be helpful by delaying the progression of the disease, but the drugs don't work for everybody. When they do, the medicine delays the worst of the inevitable.
"The end point is the same but function is better," explains Dr. Petersen.
It can be difficult for laypeople to figure out when memory problems are serious or just part of the aging process. Doctor Petersen says if you forget where you put your keys or where exactly you parked the car, that's not something to fret over. But if you walk home after having driven your car, then you need to make a doctor appointment.
"We become less efficient and flexible and don't multi-task as well as we age," says Dr. Petersen. Forgetting appointments or having had a conversation could be signs of MCI. And that can be a "precursor to Alzheimer's," says Dr. Petersen. While there is no treatment for MCI, doctors can monitor the patient to see if further decline occurs. Sometime it does and sometimes MCI just clears up if it's related to some other health issue like depression or a medication.
Doctor Petersen says the future will likely include baseline tests so doctors can see whether a patient's memory has indeed declined compared to an earlier period. When asked what can be done to lower one's risk of suffering memory decline, Dr. Peterson said, "Take care of your heart and blood vessels. Lower your weight and increase cardiovascular health." That includes avoiding diabetes and high blood pressure, too.
The doctor also challenged us to keep using our brains as we age. "Learn something hard, like a foreign language. Go back to school. Stimulate the neurons," Petersen suggested.
But staving off Alzheimer's disease also means remaining social in our later years. Isolation can be a serious problem, so ditch the computer more often and visit with friends, attend a Rotary meeting and volunteer at the Brat Stand!