Alzheimer’s develops slowly, says Deborah Halpern, of the National Family Caregiver Alliance, in Kensington, Maryland. Like the fog in Carl Sandberg’s poem, it “comes on little cat feet.” We had trouble distinguishing Alzheimer’s from normal age-related changes. But if you know what to look for, dementia is different from normal aging. Anyone can misplace their keys. People with dementia find them and have no idea what they are.
Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s
- Memory loss. It’s normal to forget names occasionally. People with Alzheimer’s forget more and more over time.
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks. It’s normal to occasionally forget why you walked into a room. People with Alzheimer’s forget how to button shirts.
- Problems with language. Everyone occasionally has trouble finding the right word. People with Alzheimer’s lose an increasing number of words and become hard to understand.
- Disorientation. Anyone can feel disoriented in unfamiliar surroundings. People with Alzheimer’s become lost on familiar turf.
- Socially inappropriate behavior. Anyone can make an occasional faux pas. People with Alzheimer’s stop bathing, or leave the house in their underwear.
- Problems reasoning. Anyone can have trouble balancing a checkbook. People with Alzheimer’s forget what checks are for.
- Seriously misplacing things. Anyone can misplace keys. People with Alzheimer’s do things like put them in the freezer.
- Mood changes. Anyone can feel moody. People with Alzheimer’s may experience significant mood changes—from calm to rage—for no apparent reason.
- Personality changes. Normal people change over time, but are still recognizably themselves. People with Alzheimer’s become different people.
- Passivity. Anyone can zone out in front of the TV. People with Alzheimer’s often become very passive, not wanting to do things they always enjoyed.
Risk Factors and Prevention
Many people feel fatalistic about Alzheimer’s because the best-known risk factors—age, family history, and certain genetic markers—can’t be changed. Meanwhile, the best publicized way to reduce risk is to engage in mind-stimulating activities. “Mental stimulation is important,” says Maria Carrillo, PhD, director of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association. “But the research shows an important connection between brain health and heart health.”
It’s poorly publicized but true: Everything that raises risk for cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) also raises risk of Alzheimer’s. And everything that reduces cardiovascular risk helps prevent Alzheimer’s, according to recent research.
Smoking. Dutch researchers followed 6,870 people over 55 for two years. Compared with nonsmokers, smokers had twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
High cholesterol. Scandinavian researchers followed 1,449 people for 21 years. High cholesterol in midlife raised the risk for later Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
High blood pressure. In the Scandinavian study, high blood pressure during midlife more than doubled risk of Alzheimer’s as participants became elderly.
Obesity. In the Scandinavian study, obesity during midlife more than doubled risk of Alzheimer’s later.
Diabetes. Swedish researchers tested the cognitive function of 1,301 elderly people over a six-year period. Diabetes significantly increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
Animal fat. In the Scandinavian study, a diet high in saturated fat more than doubled risk of Alzheimer’s.
Exercise. In the Scandinavian study, physical activity twice a week or more significantly reduced Alzheimer’s risk.
Mediterranean diet. Based predominantly on fruits and vegetables, this diet contains much less saturated fat than most Americans eat. Columbia University researchers compared the diets of almost 2,000 people, some of whom had Alzheimer’s. Those who ate a Mediterranean diet were significantly less likely to develop the disease.
Dietary antioxidants. Dutch researchers followed 5,296 people over 55 for six years and found that high intake of vitamins C and E was associated with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.
Antioxidant supplements. Antioxidants need not come only from food. Johns Hopkins researchers followed 4,740 elderly Utah residents for up to five years. Use of vitamin C and E supplements reduced Alzheimer’s risk.
Alcohol. Columbia University researchers followed 980 people over 65 for four years. Consumption of up to three glasses of wine a day reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.
Alternative Therapies for Alzheimer’s
No known treatment reverses Alzheimer’s disease. However, many studies show that alternative therapies work as well as pharmaceuticals to slow cognitive decline and treat the agitation and aggression many sufferers experience.
Ginkgo. Ten years ago, a highly publicized study showed that ginkgo (120 mg/day) significantly slows the mental decline of people with Alzheimer’s. That finding has been confirmed by many other studies. “In one,” says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas, the nation’s premier herb-education organization, “ginkgo slowed cognitive decline as well as a standard pharmaceutical treatment.”
Huperzine-A. This extract from a Chinese moss has a ginkgo-like affect on the brain. Chinese studies suggest that it slows cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s.
Coenzyme Q10. Vitamin-like coenzyme Q10 is a potent antioxidant. Pilot studies suggest it may help treat Alzheimer’s.
Aromatherapy. British researchers infused an Alzheimer’s hospital unit with lavender oil or a placebo. When exposed to lavender, agitated Alzheimer’s sufferers became significantly calmer. Another British group obtained similar results using lemon balm oil.
Massage. Studies show that massage soothes agitated Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Acupuncture. Chinese researchers treated Alzheimer’s sufferers with acupuncture (100 sessions), and their cognitive abilities improved significantly.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Tufts researchers followed 899 cognitively normal people, average age 76, for nine years. Those who consumed the most omega-3s from fatty fish and supplements had 39 percent less risk of Alzheimer’s. In people with early Alzheimer’s, one study suggests that omega-3 supplements (3 grams/day) produce some cognitive benefits.