1. What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?
“Dementia” and “Alzheimer’s disease” are often used interchangeably, but they are different. “Dementia” is an umbrella term for a variety of diseases and conditions that develop when nerve cells in the brain no longer function properly. Symptoms of dementia include changes in one’s behavior or judgment, memory, and ability to plan activities and finish tasks.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, at 60-80%. With Alzheimer’s disease, changes in the brain eventually affect basic bodily functions such as walking and swallowing.
There are over 100 types of dementia. After Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form is vascular dementia from tiny, almost imperceptible strokes, at up to 20%.
Some researchers believe that up to 45% of dementias are “mixed dementia”—Alzheimer’s disease plus another dementia.
Other types of dementia include dementia from Parkinson’s disease, Frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy Body dementia. “Early onset” (or “Familial” Alzheimer’s disease) occurs before age 60, and comprises 5-7% of Alzheimer’s disease cases.
2. Is there a test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease?
No tests exist to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. However, doctors can diagnose “probable Alzheimer’s disease” with 90% accuracy with neuropsychological testing and by ruling out other causes of memory problems and cognitive decline. A medical history can rule out depression; lab work can rule out urinary infection, thyroid dysfunction, and vitamin deficiencies; and a CT scan and MRI can rule out strokes, trauma and tumors.
A new PET scan is available in some memory care clinics, in which an intravenous injection of florbetapir, a radioactive drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration in April 2012, binds to amyloid plaques, a protein most researchers think plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid PET scans show plaques on 96% of people with severe Alzheimer’s disease and two-thirds of those with mild cognitive impairment. Researchers caution that one-third of people aged 65 and over exhibiting normal cognition also show amyloid plaques on these PET scans—and they may never develop Alzheimer’s disease. That’s a large false-positive rate. And at this time, Medicare does not cover the test, which costs several thousand dollars.
3. If there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, why is early diagnosis a good idea?
If you suspect that you or a loved one are showing signs of cognitive decline, there are a number of reasons why early detection and diagnosis are important:
The cognitive decline may be caused by something treatable, such as depression or a vitamin B12 deficiency, and early diagnosis prevents further decline;
It’s important to discuss the diagnosis with family members and begin the search for appropriate support services;
Such a discussion reduces anxiety by naming the problem;
Medication and other approaches may be used to manage symptoms;
Early diagnosis gives people the option of joining clinical trials;
It allows more awareness of how some combinations of medications make symptoms worse;
It alerts doctors and family members to the possibility that the person may need assistance with daily tasks such as cooking and managing medications;
It may reduce falls and other accidents because caregivers are more aware of the dangers;
It allows an awareness of financial problems such as the person giving money to scams;
It allows the person with dementia and their family members to plan for the future.
It’s important to note that under the Affordable Care Act, anyone with Medicare Part B is eligible for an annual wellness visit that includes a cognitive assessment, an evaluation of risk factors for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and recommendations for referrals to programs to help reduce those risk factors (such as seeing a nutritionist or joining a smoking cessation program). This annual visit is fully covered with no deductible, co-insurance, or co-payment.
4. Is Alzheimer’s hereditary?
In Familial (early-onset) Alzheimer’s (5-7% of Alzheimer’s cases), gene mutations cause a cascade of effects in the brain leading to increased amyloid, a protein that many researchers believe plays a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. If one parent carries the mutated gene, the child has a 50% chance of developing the disease; if both parents carry the gene, the risk increases to 75% percent.
In Alzheimer’s disease over age sixty, there is something called a “risk factor” gene—APOE ε4 allele. This gene increases your risk somewhat if you inherit it from your parents. According to the National Institute on Aging, “Some people with one or two APOEε4 alleles never get the disease, and others who develop Alzheimer’s do not have any APOEε4 alleles.” For that reason a blood test for the allele is not recommended for people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Some studies suggest that you are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease if you mother had it.
5. Is there any way I can reduce my risk of developing dementia?
There are no proven ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. Take heart, however. Research suggests many ways you may be able to reduce your risk.
Some researchers say that exercise may be our most powerful antidote for dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends 30 minutes of daily exercise. A study by neurologists at Rush University Medical Center shows that daily activity of all kinds—from formal exercise to activities such as washing dishes, cleaning, and cooking—may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, even in people over age 80. In another study, subjects who walked forty minutes a day for a year regained volume in their hippocampus, reversing brain shrinkage. In a third study, people with mild cognitive impairment who did resistance weight training two times a week over six months showed an increase in their memory and executive function (the ability to multi-task).
If you can, try to avoid the most common risk factors for Alzheimers. In addition to factors you can’t control, such as a family history of Alzheimer’s, these risk factors include serious head trauma; poor cardiovascular health; high blood pressure; stroke; diabetes; high cholesterol; obesity in middle age; and smoking. To that list I’d add two lesser-known risk factors: sleep apnea and high blood sugar levels. Both sleep apnea and pre-diabetes (blood sugar levels that are normal but high) are woefully under-diagnosed, so if you suspect that you have either, please get tested. Both conditions affect the health of your brain.
As far as diet is concerned, there is little agreement on what exactly will help prevent dementia, though doctors say that what is good for the body is good for the brain. And no dietary supplements have been proven to reduce the risk of dementia, though there is anecdotal evidence that coconut oil may be helpful.
Social activity and mental stimulation are crucial. Combining social activity and mental stimulation with regular exercise is more effective than doing only one or the other. Sports, cultural activities, emotional support, and close personal relationships are all key.