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Is it Alzheimer's or just normal memory loss?

June 06, 2017

It’s a chilling fact.

More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. And, according to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. death rate from Alzheimer’s disease increased 55% between 1999 and 2014.

While Americans view Alzheimer’s as a major health threat and rate it as the second most feared disease behind only cancer, the new report shouldn’t cause panic, explains Dr. Stuart Anfang, chief of Adult Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center, who oversees the hospital’s Memory Disorders Program.

“As the population ages and people are living longer due to other medical advances and improved health care, they are more likely to develop dementias like Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease of brain aging,” he said.

The CDC report, released on the eve of Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month (June), cites possible reasons for the increase in deaths as a growing older population, diagnosis at earlier stages, better reporting by physicians and others, and fewer deaths from other causes for the elderly, such as heart disease and stroke.

Dr. Anfang offers the following five things you should know about Alzheimer’s to help you better understand this important condition:

  1. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Other causes of dementia include cerebrovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, fronto-temporal dementia, and certain infections. There are also reversible conditions (like depression, low thyroid levels, or certain vitamin deficiencies) that may look like dementia, but can be treated. So, a thorough evaluation is important.
  2. Your primary care physician can do an initial evaluation for dementia. This would include a physical and mental status examination, cognitive screening exam, some basic lab tests, and often brain imaging like MRI.
  3. While there are no current medications that cure or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, there are medications that can slow the progression of functional impairment – improving quality of life and delaying the need for higher levels of care like nursing homes. These medications include donepezil (Aricept) and memantine (Namenda).
  4. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s dementia increases with age. Two to three percent of 70-year-olds have Alzheimer’s. Around one in six 80-year-olds have some degree of Alzheimer’s dementia, and the prevalence is doubled by the age of 85-90.
  5. Not all memory difficulties are due to Alzheimer’s or other dementia. Mild symptoms may be associated with normal aging or mild impairment.

 

The Alzheimer’s Association on its website offers two additional documents on Alzheimer’s and dementia: 10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s and 10 Ways To Love Your Brain, which offers tips on how to recognize symptoms and how to reduce your risk of cognitive decline by adopting key lifestyle habits.

If you notice any of the 10 early signs mentioned on the website piece above, make an appointment to talk to your primary care doctor, who after an evaluation may refer you to a doctor who specializes in dementia evaluation, such as the Baystate Memory Disorders Program.

To make an appointment with a specialist in the program, call 413-794-5555.