“Many people have been saying for a long time that the number of patients with Alzheimer’s is going to increase, just looking at the large population of aging baby boomers and longer life expectancies,” says Dr. Ariel Cole, a geriatrician at Florida Hospital’s Centre for Aging and Wellness.
“This was an effort to quantify that a bit further by analyzing existing studies and some of the predictors of Alzheimer’s Disease, as imperfect as they are.”
Imperfect, because so much is still unknown about the causes of the devastating disease. Plaques and tangles in the brain are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, but they can only be found after a person has died. “We don’t have a blood test or a brain scan that says you have it, or that you’re going to get it,” says Dr. Cole. “But we do have biomarkers and other findings that suggest you’re at a higher likelihood.”
Those biomarkers include tau and amyloid – two proteins that create the plaques which are thought responsible for cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s. Sometimes, they can be detected in scans and found in cerebrospinal fluid long before symptoms like memory loss set in, but we’re only just beginning to understand the correlation.
“Much of this is still under investigation, but the majority of people with a lot of amyloid buildup have memory loss,” says Dr. Cole. “It’s clear that the changes begin long before we develop symptoms, and it’s awesome that we have this window to identify how we can arrest this disease.”
In the study, researchers analyzed those biomarkers and combed through enormous amounts of data to arrive at their staggering numbers. They found that 46.7 million Americans over the age of 30 could already be in very early, symptom-free stages of Alzheimer’s, though many may never progress to full-blown disease.
As bad as these numbers sound, there may be a silver lining. Dr. Cole, who specializes in treating Alzheimer’s and other dementias, has faith that the study may help bring us closer to identifying first the cause, and then a cure.
“I hope that these numbers, while shocking and a little scary, will help to direct research money into this area,” she says.
“Research is happening, which is great, but the more the better. I pray on those good scientists who are researching this, and I absolutely have hope that we will find the cure.”
The Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease (and What You Can Do)
One of the most dismaying things about Alzheimer’s Disease is this: once a patient has the hallmark symptoms, the disease has often taken irreversible hold.
“In many of the patients I see, their family members or caregivers have seen signs for years, but they were dismissed for various reasons – they were tired, they didn’t hear correctly, the symptoms were minor, et cetera,” says Dr. Cole.
It’s natural to want to brush off warning signs as anything other than dementia. But early detection is important in ruling out other, reversible conditions, as well as getting Alzheimer’s patients better treatment. Here are some common signs to look for:
- Forgetfulness (such as forgetting appointments or repeating questions)
- Getting disoriented in familiar settings
- Misunderstanding social cues
- Confusing familial relationships (for example, thinking your grandson is your son)
- Difficulty with complex sequencing and planning tasks (like preparing a Thanksgiving dinner)
What You Can Do
Strictly speaking, there is no way (that we know of yet) to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease, but certain healthy habits can improve your chances. “From past studies, we know that people who continue to challenge their brain, exercise and follow a healthy diet have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease,” says Dr. Cole.
Take these steps to help defend against Alzheimer’s Disease (and countless other conditions):
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains
- Exercise regularly
- Stay socially and mentally engaged (such as learning new skills or activities, visiting with friends and traveling)
- Minimize passive activities, like watching TV
- Eliminate toxins, including alcohol, smoking, drugs and certain prescription medications (ask your d, ctor for specific information)