Alzheimer’s a Dire Threat, but Early Action and Treatment Can Slow its Progress
A neurologist and director of the Center for Cognitive Health at Mount Sinai Hospital, Gandy specializes in the study and treatment of dementia, focusing on Alzheimer’s disease. He has been working in the field for 25 years.
WHO’S MOST AT RISK
As Americans live longer and longer, Alzheimer’s disease has become more and more familiar.
“Alzheimer’s is the most common underlying disease that causes dementia, which literally means the loss of the ability to think,” says Mount Sinai’s Dr. Sam Gandy. “Half of all people over age 85 are living with Alzheimer’s. It’s really a disease that touches everyone.”
Of the 5.4 million Americans who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, 5.2 million are older than 65. “Aging is the No. 1 risk factor for Alzheimer’s,” says Gandy. “While early onset cases do exist, the vast majority of patients are over 65.”
Twice as many women as men have Alzheimer’s, not because women are more prone to the disease, but because they have a longer life expectancy.
Though there isn’t a complete consensus, most doctors believe Alzheimer’s is the result of plaque buildup in the brain. “This specific plaque, a protein called amyloid, is made everywhere in the body all throughout life,” says Gandy.
“After 60 or 70 years, some brains continue making amyloid, but can no longer process it properly, and the plaque buildup interferes with normal brain function.”
Only 3% of Alzheimer’s cases are completely attributable to genetics.
Although Alzheimer’s is caused by plaque buildup in the brain, it follows a process similar to the plaque buildup in the arteries that causes heart disease.
“The primary risk factors for Alzheimer’s are the same as heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood sugar, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle,” says Gandy. “Also, having suffered a head injury severe enough to lose consciousness puts you at higher risk of Alzheimer’s down the road.”
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Traditionally, Alzheimer’s has been diagnosed when patients present certain symptoms.
“The three classic symptoms are loss of short-term memory, a personality change or loss of executive function,” says Gandy.
“For instance, patients might be able to tell you about their childhood but not what they had for breakfast, or a previously outgoing elder gets depressed.”
With loss of executive function, patients can look okay, but lose the ability to handle necessary duties in life, like managing finances and paying bills.