If you think there is nothing you can do to delay, stop, or even prevent Alzheimer's disease, we have a saying around here: We can change your mind.
While there is no “cure” for Alzheimer's yet, clinical research data shows that current therapies can delay the progression of the disease by anywhere from a third to 60 percent. To translate that to something meaningful, delaying Alzheimer's progression could mean the difference between reaching the end of your life without the ability to balance your checkbook versus losing the ability to swallow your food.
In fact, because the average course of Alzheimer's progression takes about 14 years, if you detect and treat it early, you could effectively prevent the disease by delaying its onset.
So how can you detect Alzheimer's early?
The most important step is to see your doctor. For too long people have believed that Alzheimer's cannot be treated and that it cannot be properly diagnosed without an autopsy. That was true 20 years ago, but now we have an ability to diagnose with better than 90 percent accuracy, and treat the disease with positive results. Unfortunately, fear and fatalism still surround Alzheimer's, leading people to avoid seeking a diagnosis.
We now know we can detect Alzheimer's in the “mild cognitive impairment” stage. That's when you can still do all your well-learned skills – shopping, paying bills, hobbies – but have trouble retaining recently acquired information, like appointments, recent conversations or new locations.
To catch it early, have your memory checked annually after the age of 45, when memory problems start to develop in people with Alzheimer's. By establishing a good baseline, any changes will be detected early.
The Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program has implemented a simple memory assessment that distinguishes between normal “senior moment” experiences and mild cognitive impairment with 97 percent accuracy.
You can discuss establishing your baseline with your physician, or visit one of the program's sites in Newport Beach, Irvine, Corona del Mar and Huntington Beach.
The purpose of the program has been to educate the public as well as physicians about the benefit of early detection, and since 2010, more than 7,000 people have passed through the doors, including 700 physicians who have been trained to recognize the disease in their patients.
We have found 1 out of every 4 people over the age of 55 in Orange County has mild cognitive impairment. We know from population studies that half of those individuals will have Alzheimer's. That translates to about 40,000 people in Orange County who have the disease and will experience dementia if not treated.
On the other hand, half of those individuals do not have Alzheimer's disease, but more treatable conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and depression. All these conditions can cause mild cognitive impairment if not managed properly.
Medical treatment has improved dramatically, and even staying physically and mentally active can go a long way toward improving your memory and slowing the progression of the disease.
One of my patients is a perfect example of this: An identical twin in her 70s with a strong genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's, she has recently experienced mild memory loss. Her twin sister, meanwhile, is mute, incontinent and living in a nursing home with advanced dementia.
When I asked what might have contributed to this wide gap, my patient said she stayed physically active, took classes, read and continued to learn during her adult life. Her sister did not. She also took her health seriously and has been having her memory checked.
She took control and changed her mind. And it has made all the difference.
– Dr. William R. Shankle is director of the Memory and Cognitive Disorders Program at Hoag Neurosciences Institute, and oversees the Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program.