Is it normal memory loss or Alzheimer's disease?

The pink ribbons you saw people wearing in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month are changing color in November.

All during this month, people across the nation will be sporting “purple” ribbons in recognition of National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month.

“I wish that I had some better news to share during Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. But, the truth is that while every day researchers learn more about this debilitating disease, there is still no known cure for Alzheimer’s dementia,” said Dr. Stuart Anfang, chief, Adult Psychiatry, Baystate Medical Center.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest of everyday tasks such as walking and swallowing. People in the final stages of the disease are often bed-bound and require 24-hour care.

Some memory loss is normal

While memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, the Baystate Medical Center psychiatrist noted that it is normal to have some lapses in memory as you grow older, and for those who do, they often fear it’s a sign of Alzheimer’s. However, true symptoms include the following as listed by the National Institute on Aging:

  • being unable to remember things
  • asking the same question over and over
  • getting lost in familiar places
  • being unable to follow directions
  • experiencing disorientation about time, people and places
  • neglecting personal safety, nutrition and hygiene

The statistics are alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. The number of people with the disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65. And, by 2050 the number of those with Alzheimer’s is expected to rise to 14 million, nearly a three-fold increase.

History of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a psychiatrist who over 100 years ago in 1906 described a patient in her 50s who exhibited symptoms of memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many “abnormal clumps” doctors now refer to as amyloid plaques and “tangled bundles of fibers,” now called neurofibrillary tangles, which cause brain cells to die.

However, it would be another 70 years before Alzheimer’s would be recognized as the most common cause of dementia, as well as a major cause of death. It wasn’t until then that Alzheimer’s disease became a significant area of research. And, while the last 10 years have seen a tremendous growth in research, there is still much to be discovered about the precise biological changes that cause Alzheimer’s, why it progresses more quickly in some that in others, and how the disease can be prevented, slowed or stopped, according to information provided in the Alzheimer’s Association 2016 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report.

No medications to stop the disease

While there is currently no medication to prevent or stop the disease, there are several prescription drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Medications referred to as cholinesterase inhibitors may help delay worsening symptoms for a limited time for those with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. For those with moderate to severe disease symptoms, a medication known as memantine may help patients maintain such daily functions as going to the bathroom independently or dressing themselves.

The greatest known risk for Alzheimer’s is advancing age, as well as family history and genetics.

Because genetics is a risk factor and some families have a very high prevalence of Alzheimer’s, Dr. Anfang noted it’s important to share this information with your primary care physician who will ask you about your family history and any signs of forgetfulness. Scientists have also identified several gene mutations, such as APOE 4, which increases the risk that a person will develop the disease.

Train your brain

As for prevention, while there is no known way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Anfang noted there are some things you can do that may help to keep your brain healthy.

“Just as we recommend for cancer and many other diseases, it’s a good idea to lead a healthy lifestyle by eating correctly, exercising and keeping active, not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, and maintaining a healthy weight,” said Dr. Anfang. “Keeping your mind active with the likes of crossword puzzles, brain games and playing games like chess or bridge, can be helpful to keep you mentally agile, although these activities don’t actually prevent Alzheimer’s disease,” he added.

Learn more about Baystate's Memory Disorders Program and the diagnosis and treatment for cognitive impairments.

Join us on Tuesday, November 15, 2016 in Holyoke for More Than Forgetfulness with Dr. Anfang!