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Feature Articles - Aging


Defining Alzheimer’s and Dementia


Anyone who has reached their fifth decade has experienced a moment when they have forgotten someone’s name or where they put the car keys. When that starts to happen it is easy to wonder if you are experiencing the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It is important to know what Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are and how they impact a person.


Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are not the same thing but they are related. According to the National Institutes of Health, Alzheimer’s is a disease that damages brain cells and gradually gets worse. Dementia is a loss of mental function that interferes with normal daily functioning. Dementia is not a disease; it is a group of symptoms that are caused by diseases or conditions.


Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Vascular dementia occurs after a stroke and is the second leading cause of dementia. These types of dementia are permanent. Dementia can also be caused by thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, excess use of alcohol, medications and depression. These forms of dementia can be improved with treatment.


There isn’t a specific test to determine if a person has dementia. Doctors determine whether and what type of dementia a person has by taking a complete health history and assessing changes in thinking and behavior. Functions that doctors specifically look at include memory, communication and language, ability to focus and pay attention, reasoning and judgment, and visual perception.


Doctors can determine if a person has Alzheimer’s about 90 percent of the time. The only way to get a sure diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is to examine changes in the brain after death.


“There are many risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia that we can’t control but there are some indications that healthy lifestyle changes may delay the onset.” said Tammy Roberts, MU Extension nutrition and health education specialist.


The older a person gets, the stronger the likelihood they can develop Alzheimer’s dementia. After age 65, the risk doubles about every five years. If a parent or sibling has Alzheimer’s, your risk is increased. Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s probably because they live longer. People who experience memory problems that are worse than expected for their age may be at risk for developing Alzheimer’s dementia.


There is evidence that the lifestyle factors that cause heart disease may also put you at risk for Alzheimer’s. Things you can do to keep both your heart and brain healthy include regular physical exercise, not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol and controlling diabetes.


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Last update: Tuesday, May 22, 2012