Family Health Diary

September is World Alzheimer’s month. In New Zealand there are 70,000 people living with dementia. Dementia is a reduction in thinking, memory and reasoning that interferes with your day-to-day life. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia but it’s not the only cause. The symptoms are due to a changes that happen within the brain.

Early on-set Alzheimer’s can start in your 30s and is thought to be due to an inherited change in one of your genes. Early onset happens for only about one in every ten Alzheimer’s patients.

Late onset (mid-60s) is more common and is likely to be due to a combination of genetic influences as well as lifestyle and environment. Though symptoms appear from mid-60s, the brain changes might have started 10 years or more before that.

Research shows that Alzheimer’s is caused by a build-up in the brain of two specific proteins. These cause blockages in the neural pathways that we need for the brain to function. These blockages slow and then stop messages being passed around within the brain.

Other things that contribute to the progression of Alzheimer’s include problems with glucose metabolism, chronic inflammation and reduced blood flow to the brain. Blood vessels are needed to deliver nutrients to your brain and the glucose provides energy for it to work.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, the brain begins to shrink and loses the ability to function. This starts in the area of our brain that deals with memory and learning. Next comes problems with making decisions and language. As the disease progresses more of the brain stops working. Gradually a person with Alzheimer’s no longer recognises friends or family and loses the ability to think or function independently.

What to look for
It is normal for anyone to occasionally forget something, like someone’s birthday or phone number. With Alzheimer’s people being to forget recent events (what they did this morning). They might find it difficult to find things they have just put down. This is made worse if they begin putting things in strange places, like putting the kettle in the fridge.

A person with Alzheimer’s may find it difficult to follow a conversation. They might not realise what time of day it is or what they should be doing: getting up, going to bed, making dinner.

As parts of the brain begin to stop functioning the person will gradually lose the ability to think, make decisions and function independently. They might forget how to add things up, they might no longer understand what numbers are. There may be changes in personality and rapid mood swings: calm to angry for no reason at all and then tears.

If you are worried about yourself or someone close to you, it is important to see a doctor and get a proper diagnosis.

Reducing your risk
Brain scans and other scientific advances are increasing our knowledge of the causes of Alzheimer’s. This is leading to promising new discoveries that might help prevent Alzheimer’s. There is also ongoing research into diet and lifestyle changes that may help.

Healthy blood pressure, keeping diabetes under control and reducing weight are all shown to produce many health benefits including improving heart health. Current research is looking at how these might also reduce your chance of Alzheimer’s.

Other things that have been shown to contribute to healthy aging are being investigated to see if they reduce the chance of Alzheimer’s:

  • Healthy diet
  • Physical activity
  • Social engagement
  • Mentally stimulating activities

It seems like that list is the answer to many health concerns from diabetes to heart attacks and now Alzheimer’s. Aim for half an hour physical activity every day and half your two main meals should be vegetables. Once you are doing that and making sure you are using you brain every day, you are well on the way to good brain health as well as good heart health.

Written by Linda Caddick

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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