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Years in the making: How the risk for Alzheimer’s disease can be reduced

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 5.5 million Americans, up to 1.7 percent of the population, may have Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms such as memory problems, impaired reasoning or judgment, vision or spatial issues, and difficulty finding words can indicate early stages of the disease. (U.S. Army graphic) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 5.5 million Americans, up to 1.7 percent of the population, may have Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms such as memory problems, impaired reasoning or judgment, vision or spatial issues, and difficulty finding words can indicate early stages of the disease. (U.S. Army graphic)

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From forgetting names to repeating questions, or having trouble remembering a recent event, growing older presents some challenges for an aging mind. But these symptoms can be an indication of something much more serious: Alzheimer’s disease.

Army Maj. Abraham Sabersky, a staff neurosurgeon at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, said Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death for Americans.

“The health of our service members and veterans is the paramount mission of the Military Health System,” said Sabersky. “Given Alzheimer's prevalence in the general population, I believe that it is important that we highlight the lifestyle modifications that can prevent this debilitating illness.”

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that affects the brain’s ability to retain new information. The result is often noticed as “memory problems.” The National Institute of Aging, or NIA, defines the disease in three stages: mild, moderate, and severe. Symptoms develop slowly but get worse over time.

As early symptoms begin to appear, people can seem healthy but may have trouble with processing, remembering, or showing good judgment. According to the NIA, some emerging signs of Alzheimer’s include memory loss, getting lost in familiar settings, difficulty with money and bills, and taking longer to complete everyday tasks. The disease can become severe enough to limit a person’s ability to carry on a conversation or respond to the surrounding environment, said Sabersky.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said an estimated 5.5 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease in 2017. Risk factors include aging, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, and family history. The CDC said symptoms usually begin after age 60, but Alzheimer’s disease likely starts a decade or more before problems become apparent to others.

“There appears to be a link between repeated head injuries and certain forms of dementia, which can overlap with the symptoms of Alzheimer's,” said Sabersky, referring to a 2014 study published by the American Academy of Neurology. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 750,000 veterans have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, he added

“Veterans who experienced brain trauma in the course of their service can be at higher risk for developing the disease,” said Sabersky. “The diagnosis PTSD has also been associated with an increased risk of developing dementia later in life.”

While no cure has been found, various types of medication are available to help lessen symptoms and improve quality of life. Sabersky said extensive interest in the subject has led to new research findings being released consistently over time.

Army Maj. Joetta Khan, registered dietitian at Walter Reed, said risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are similar to heart disease.

“There is a growing body of evidence that diet, exercise, and other interactions within one’s environment could alter brain health and mental function,” said Khan. Exercise seems to play a relevant role in brain health. Many observational studies have shown a decreased risk of dementia in people who exercise, she added.

Healthy lifestyle habits, including exercise, proper nutrition, sleep, stress management, and being active, have shown the greatest benefit for preventing and slowing the progression of Alzheimer's, said Sabersky.

“Keeping physically active and eating a balanced diet should be a priority with aging,” said Khan, adding that although bodies begin to slow down, they are influenced by behaviors. “Understanding the connection between a healthy lifestyle and brain health is essential to increasing not only our quantity (years) of life, but also the quality of those years.”

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