September brings changes. Summer sun and road-trip vacations give way to cooler temperatures and the back-to-work regimens of fall. And with the carefree days of summer passing, it’s a perfect time to focus on what’s important in our lives, and there’s nothing more important than our health. That’s why September is the ideal time for World Alzheimer’s Month.
World Alzheimer’s Month is an international campaign created by Alzheimer’s Disease International designed to raise awareness, combat outdated modes of thinking, and bring people together through organization and activism so we can all be more proactive about Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related conditions that impact the lives of so many! There are approximately 5.8 million people living in the United States who struggle with Alzheimer’s disease as well as an assortment of related dementias according to data compiled by the CDC (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). That’s a lot of people living with memory loss and dementia, and when you add in the tens of millions more people who are the family members of sufferers, it’s easy to see how Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss/dementia are health issues that impact nearly everyone.
Real Talk: What Is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease, or simply Alzheimer’s as it is most commonly known, is a degenerative disease of the brain. Over time, Alzheimer’s can wreak havoc on the brain’s capacity to function normally, affecting memory, behavior, and even the ability to perform basic daily tasks. Alzheimer’s can develop slowly or it can accelerate rather rapidly. It tends to impact the 65-and-over population most often, but that is not always the case. Alzheimer’s disease may surprise the otherwise young and healthy, with diagnoses coming as early as 30 or 40 years of age, though a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s that young is rare.
Alzheimer’s disease takes its name from Alois Alzheimer, a scientific researcher and pathologist who in 1906 revealed to the 37th Congress of Psychiatrists of Southern Germany, and thus the world, that he had identified a disease affecting the cerebral cortex. The disease had caused disorientation and memory loss, language problems, as well as some hallucinations in the patient, a woman named, Auguste D. Autopsy results after her unusually early death at the age of just 50 years old revealed a thinning cerebral cortex, neurofibrillary tangles and senile plaques which are the hallmarks of what we know today to be Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s essentially is a disconnect between neurons, which are nerve cells located in the brain. Our bodies rely on neurons to send important messages to different areas of the brain. Neurons are also responsible for sending messages to our organs and muscles; it’s a complex system that plays a critical role in how our bodies function. Think of Alzheimer’s as a chink in the armor that then creates a vulnerability allowing for various levels of malfunctioning within the hippocampus which impacts memory, as well as the cerebral cortex which we rely on for reasoning, behavior, and even language. As Alzheimer’s disease continues its degenerative process any number of brain areas can be impacted.
A common symptom that is often a red flag for Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. Memory loss is what most people think of when they hear of someone being diagnosed with the disease and it is, in fact, often the first debilitating symptom experienced. But memory loss is certainly not the only problem that many Alzheimer’s sufferers face. Alzheimer’s may affect good judgment, make it difficult to find the proper words to communicate one’s thoughts, and impair cognitive functioning to various degrees, sometimes quite severely. As the disease progresses, someone living with Alzheimer’s may find that tasks once considered simple, may now become complex or even impossible, such as cooking meals, driving an automobile, managing bills, or even walking through the neighborhood and finding your way back home afterwards. Alzheimer’s may create fear, and anger, via the significant mood changes it can produce, but of course fear and anger could also be a natural response as well due to the tremendous anxiety Alzheimer’s causes someone when their lives begin to change and they have no control over those changes.
5 Important Facts About Alzheimer’s Disease
Understandably, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating discovery that often creates fear and anxiety for both the patient as well as their family. And due to its unpredictable nature, Alzheimer’s can be a torturous disease as families may not know how long they have till their loved one slides deeper in, perhaps losing precious memories, forgetting family members’ names or faces, experiencing marked social behavioral changes, and even exhibiting dangerous behavior due to disorientation. There are many facts and statistics that illuminate how Alzheimer’s manifests and why. But let’s focus on 5 important facts that you may not know.
1) Socialization and Community Living May Improve Brain Health
Research has shown that socialization is incredibly important for good brain health (and that’s an important consideration for Alzheimer’s and dementia in general). In fact, according to one recent large-scale study referenced by Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing, when someone is lonely, their risk for dementia jumps a staggering 40%. Socialization stimulates memory and improves neural networks, thus living in a vibrant community with friends is good for your health!
2) Black Americans and Women are More Susceptible
Research has shown that older Black Americans are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s and/or another dementia-related condition than similarly-aged White Americans. And women suffer the most; nearly two-thirds of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are women!
3) Treatment Can Slow Alzheimer’s Progression
While we hope for a cure, currently there isn’t one for Alzheimer’s; however, there is hope. Medical science advances every day, and it’s good to know that highly-educated researchers are working to find a cure, but until they do there are a number of new medications that may combat symptoms in the mild or moderate stages of Alzheimer’s disease. From cholinesterase inhibitors that work within the brain to stop the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, to other meds that help regulate glutamate levels, there are options, so talk to a doctor and find out what might be helpful for your loved one.
4) Alcohol Is Not Your Friend
Most of us like to enjoy a drink or two once in a while when we’re socializing (and remember, socialization is good for brain health) but excessive intake of alcohol for many years can put you at high risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related/memory loss conditions.
5) More Than 50% of Those Who Have Alzheimer’s… Don’t Even Know
Alzheimer’s disease can creep into someone’s life slowly, so many people who have it, more than half, don’t even realize they do. Take note of a family member’s actions and watch for signs. It’s important to note that it’s totally normal for forgetfulness to increase as we age, but if more alarming signs are developing, such as getting lost in a familiar place, having trouble paying bills, failing to engage in good hygiene habits, etc., it may be time to talk to a doctor.
How to Observe World Alzheimer’s Month
It’s the plain truth… money is always needed. Local and federal Alzheimer’s organizations always need money to cover everything from critical research to basic administrative costs. If you have a little, please give a little!
Spread the Word
Check with your local Alzheimer’s foundation or organization. Many organizations offer instruction, and some provide kits with information and tools that can help you ‘get out the word’ for Alzheimer’s awareness, by working in the community to increase the public’s education on Alzheimer’s, or printing materials you can then distribute to raise awareness. Remember, more than 50% of people living with Alzheimer’s don’t even know they have it, so you might be the voice that gets them moving toward critical treatment!
Volunteer at a charity event, register for an Alzheimer’s walk, or offer your time at an Alzheimer’s organization locally (they can put you to work, and they need you). There are so many ways to get involved. Call your local Alzheimer’s organization and tell them you want to volunteer. They’ll be happy you called, and you’ll feel good too, knowing that you’re volunteering your time to help others!