The risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia increases with age. That means that as medical science makes it possible for people to live longer, it is expected that the number of people with dementia will go up. In fact, over the past 35 years, the number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease has doubled. Unfortunately, it usually goes undetected until symptoms start to appear. Because they are often gradual, dementia and related conditions are not always easy to detect at first. Fortunately, scientists are starting to develop a better understanding of what dementia looks like in the brain before it starts to affect cognition and behavior.
In one study, researchers found that people who think they have Alzheimer’s are often right. When men over 60 were asked about noticing changes in memory, the ones who reported significant and worsening impairment—as opposed to the lapses that are an ordinary part of life, and of aging particularly—were often confirmed to be suffering the condition. That means that people are capable of noticing early signs of Alzheimer’s disease in themselves, providing an indicator for screening. Similarly, people whose mothers had Alzheimer’s and who will have it themselves show indications in brain MRIs long before any symptoms develop, especially if their fathers had it as well.
These are important breakthroughs, because ordinarily, by the time symptoms appear, significant amounts or irreversible damage have already taken place. That’s why it’s important to get a handle on risk. Risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases sharply after age 65, and by 85 is nearly half. Diabetics are prone to Alzheimer’s disease, as are people who have had head trauma. Screening is available for people in high-risk groups.
Unfortunately, no cure for Alzheimer’s exists, but there are steps that can reduce someone’s risk or suffering. Research has found benefits from doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and a host of other mental exercises. Physical activity and staying fit can also help preserve cognitive functioning. There are some medications that can have a beneficial effect. Blood pressure medication fights dementia because high blood pressure is a risk factor, but there’s also some evidence that some kinds of anti-hypertension drugs have a direct influence on Alzheimer’s risk.