Alzheimer’s disease is affecting more people than ever.
Some experts say Alzheimer’s disease will soon reach epidemic proportions. More than 5 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s disease now, and this number is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050. Alzheimer’s disease affects not just the people who are diagnosed, but their family and friends, too. With so many people diagnosed with the disease, millions more will be caring for them. Here are some things doctors want you to know about Alzheimer's disease.
1. “No two people with Alzheimer’s disease will progress the same."
“While Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease, no two people with the disease will have the same path in terms of symptoms or pace,” says Dr. Daniel Cohen, director of cognitive neurology for Sentara Medical Group and the chair of neurology for Eastern Virginia Medical School. Some people may seem to deteriorate quickly, while others are able to function well and maintain an active lifestyle for many years, despite the disease.
2. “Alzheimer’s doesn’t suddenly appear.”
After diagnosis, family members often look back and realize there were earlier signs of the disease. Symptoms are insidious and progress slowly, explains Dr. Aashit K. Shah, chief of neurology at Detroit Medical Center Harper University Hospital. “Some of the most common ones are memory difficulty, sleep disturbances, getting lost or inability to navigate, and poor judgment.” They may also lose color or depth perception and have difficulty with determining how fast something is moving, which can lead to accidents.
3. “Alzheimer’s affects younger people, too.”
“Alzheimer’s is perceived as a disease of older people,” says Dr. Marc Leavey, a primary care specialist at Mercy Personal Physicians in Lutherville, Md. But younger people can develop an early-onset variety. Approximately 200,000 people in the U.S. have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “It can strike people in their 30s and is often a tragic reality that must be faced,” says Dr. Leavey. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is often hereditary, running in families.
4. “No one can predict Alzheimer’s disease.”
Alzheimer’s doesn’t discriminate; it can affect anyone, but some people may be at higher risk of developing the disease, says Dr. Cohen. Risk factors include age, family history of Alzheimer’s disease, repeated traumatic injury of the brain (for example, a boxer or football player with multiple concussions), and having heart disease. Dr. Cohen points out there are other factors too, such as lower educational levels, lack of social engagement, and having a specific gene known as APOE.
5. “Some ethnic groups have a higher rate of Alzheimer’s disease.”
"Hispanics are about 1.5 times as likely to have the disease compared to older European Americans," explains Dr. Leavey. “African Americans are twice as likely; and two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women.” Despite those numbers, minorities are underrepresented in Alzheimer’s research, so it’s important to reach out to diverse communities to help them understand the disease and their options regarding early detection and treatment.
6. “Alzheimer’s disease is not the same as ‘getting old.’”
Many people believe Alzheimer’s disease is a fact of life that naturally occurs as we age, but this isn’t necessarily true. “Many individuals don’t know Alzheimer’s disease is different from the normal aging process and can be helped by medications,” says Dr. Shah. As a result, early symptoms can go unchecked. When a patient is tested, family members usually underestimate the how far the disease has progressed and how much their loved one has forgotten, he explains.
7. “Keeping active is an important key to quality of life.”
It is devastating to be told you have Alzheimer’s disease, but doctors want you to stay active and continue to live life to the fullest. “It is important to engage socially and continue to discover what makes life meaningful,” says Dr. Cohen. So, if you’re still able to travel, go to social activities, even continue working, doctors encourage you to do so.
8. “Current treatments focus on the symptoms, not the disease itself.”
There is no cure yet for Alzheimer’s disease, but doctors are finding some treatments help manage the symptoms of the disease. “These treatments work by changing the chemical environment in the brain, potentially improving the efficiency in which the brain performs its job,” explains Dr. Leavey. There are misconceptions that current treatments slow the disease, but this isn’t the case yet. Instead, the treatments may help relieve insomnia or anxiety, for example.
9. “Researchers are working hard to find a cure.”
“There is extensive research ongoing for the treatment or cure of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as to diagnose the disease early,” says Dr. Shah. This includes using gene sequencing and immunotherapies. “There are large clinical trials studying treatments that help reduce abnormally high buildup of a protein called amyloid, one of the major abnormalities in Alzheimer’s disease,” adds Dr. Cohen. “We are participating in some of these trials, which helps both our patients and our team continue to have hope.”
10. “Not all dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.”
Signs of forgetfulness and dementia may be caused by other illnesses aside from Alzheimer’s disease and sometimes these are treatable. For example, seniors with an untreated urinary tract infection may seem to develop dementia, which then goes away when the infection is gone. In addition, other diseases, such as Lewy body disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal lobe dementia can cause severe dementia. “Some more rare causes of dementia progress much faster than typical Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Cohen.