Alzheimer’s disease: Signs to Watch For

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Would you recognize the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease in yourself or a loved one? An Alzheimer Society of Canada survey of baby boomers has revealed a surprising lack of awareness of symptoms.

Only 50 per cent of respondents were able to identify memory loss as a key symptom, and 23 per cent could not name any of the critical signs — this despite a doubling of the risk of developing Alzheimer’s every five years after age 65.

Dr. Kelly Murphy, a Baycrest neuropsychologist and co–author of Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (Oxford University Press, answers readers’ questions about Alzheimer’s disease.

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Q. What are the risks for developing Alzheimer’s disease?

A. Any medical condition that affects your heart, affects your brain too. The most common risk factors are hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes.

  • Family history of the disease: If a parent or other blood relative developed dementia in their older years, there is increased risk for others in the family but it does not mean they will for certain get Alzheimer’s.
  • Acquired brain injury, from a hit to the head or a stroke.
  • Advancing age is the biggest risk factor for dementia.

Q. What lifestyle changes or other tips do you have to help prevent Alzheimer’s or delay its onset?

A. Research has found many lifestyle choices that can reduce risk, including:

  • Being physically active – More and more research indicates that physical exercise is one of the most important lifestyle choices for reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Exercise helps to better prevent or control risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Exercise also reduces the risk of stroke, promotes a sense of well-being, and reverses the ill effects of chronic stress on the body.
  • Being intellectually and socially engaged – There appears to be some real benefit from engaging in mentally challenging activities that require you to learn, solve problems and remember information – activities that might include stimulating conversation, playing cards or chess, or learning to play a new piece of music or a new language.
  • Choosing healthy foods – Studies show that people who eat more plant based foods and fish have a lower risk of dementia. What you eat has a direct influence on the kinds of medical conditions – such as diabetes – that are risk factors for Alzheimer’s.
  • Managing stress– Stress can affect both your physical and mental health. Physically it can make conditions such as high blood pressure worse. Mentally it can cause anxiety or depression, and reduce your ability to focus attention and remember information. Chronic stress can reduce the size of the hippocampus, comprising memory abilities. One good way to reduce stress is to be physically active.
  • Developing good memory habits and strategies that boost your functional memory and can potentially delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Courtesy of Baycrest, the global leader in innovations, research and breakthroughs for the journey of aging.