Aging or Alzheimer's

Media images of once-vital adults robbed first of memory, then personality, and finally the ability to carry out even the most basic living skills strike fear into the hearts of aging Baby Boomers everywhere. If we forget where we left the car keys, or absentmindedly stick the ice cream in the refrigerator, in the back of our minds the question may resound: Could it be Alzheimer's?

According to the Alzheimer's Association, about 50 percent of adults who reach the age of 85 are diagnosed with Alzheimer's. But experts remind us that forgetfulness is not necessarily an indicator of the disease. Occasional lapses in memory are normal as we age. However, Alzheimer's involves progressive and severe memory loss resulting from the degeneration and death of brain cells important for memory. But there are other culprits for forgetfulness as well: Poor diet, not drinking enough water, depression, and other medical conditions can all contribute to declining memory function.

Studies show that diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol tend to clog arteries and also put people at a higher risk for stroke and dementia, and possibly for Alzheimer's. Therefore, it's clear that good dietary behavior can protect your overall health as you age.

Brain training

Nothing deprives the brain of stimulation like a sedentary lifestyle. Walking, gardening or bicycling just 30 minutes a day can have a significant impact on brain function.

Participating in mind-stimulating activities like reading, learning foreign languages and doing puzzles and word games help keep your brain in optimum shape. Staying socially connected is also recommended.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's

The Alzheimer's Association offers the following checklist to help distinguish normal memory loss from the onset of Alzheimer's disease:

  • Memory loss. Forgetting recently learned information. While it's normal to forget appointments, names or telephone numbers, those with dementia will forget such things more often.
  • Difficulty performing everyday tasks. A person with Alzheimer's may not know the steps for preparing a meal, using a common household appliance or participating in a lifelong hobby.
  • Problems with language. Everyone has trouble finding the right word sometimes, but a person with Alzheimer's often forgets simple words or substitutes unusual words, making his or her speech or writing hard to understand.
  • Disorientation to time and place. It's normal to forget the day of the week or where you're going. But people with Alzheimer's may forget where they are and how they got there, and may not know how to get back home.
  • Poor or decreased judgment. Alzheimer's sufferers may dress without regard to the weather, show poor judgment about money, giving away large sums to telemarketers or paying for home repairs or products they don't need.
  • Problems with abstract thinking. Balancing a checkbook is a task that can be challenging for some. But a person with Alzheimer's may forget what the numbers represent and what needs to be done with them.
  • Misplacing things. Anyone can temporarily misplace a wallet or key. Someone with Alzheimer's may put things in unusual places, like an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
  • Changes in mood or behavior. Alzheimer's sufferers can show rapid mood swings from calm to tears to anger for no apparent reason.
  • Changes in personality. A person with Alzheimer's can change dramatically, becoming extremely confused, suspicious, fearful or dependent on a family member.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's disease is not an easy task. In fact, the only definitive diagnosis is a post-mortem brain biopsy. However, a physician should first do several tests to rule out other causes for the symptoms that are occurring. If those do not reveal another cause, there are a series of different mental and physical tests often performed over several days that can help a qualified physician make a diagnosis with 90% accuracy. If you notice worsening memory loss in you or a loved one, it would be wise to schedule an initial appointment with your primary medical practitioner.

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