Memory loss can be scary. People often ignore worrisome changes in thinking and behavior as they age, but it’s important to find out what is causing the changes. If you are among the 10% of seniors who develop Alzheimer’s disease, you can learn about treatments to slow its progression and manage symptoms.
As a cognitive neurologist who helped develop Atlantic Health System’s Memory and Cognitive Disorders Program, I can tell you that understanding memory loss is one of the most important benefits of early diagnosis. Patients know what to expect and can make the best plans for their lives. They can also decide whether to pursue clinical trials or other treatment options. Family dynamics often improve when loved ones understand the situation and learn to deal with the changes.
Aging can cause some mild changes in memory and thinking. Dementia represents a deficit from a person’s previous abilities that now impacts their daily life and function. It is not a normal part of aging. Dementia can result in things like forgetting recent conversations and activities, getting lost driving to a familiar place, and missing bill payments. Alzheimer’s is the most common type, affecting 5.8 million adults in the U.S.
Most patients who first come to the program — part of the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute at Overlook Medical Center — have mild to moderate symptoms. I also have patients in their 50s with a family history of memory loss who worry they are at higher risk for dementia.
I ask patients about their symptoms, changes in mood and behavior. I review medications because some side effects can mimic dementia. I check blood work for signs of infection or thyroid disturbances to rule out other causes. I also give a short memory test. An imaging study of the head can identify signs of atrophy, old strokes, bleeding, vascular disease or mass or tumor.
Alzheimer’s involves the abnormal accumulation of two proteins, amyloid and tau, in the brain. Amyloid gets deposited as plaque between neurons and tau forms as tangles inside neurons. Over time, nerve cells become damaged and lose connections with other neurons. They eventually die.
While Alzheimer’s currently has no cure, there are medications that can slow its progression. Changes in mood and behavior can be eased with medications. Cognitive therapy helps patients develop strategies to deal with memory decline. For example, they can learn to use lists and calendars to stay organized.
Risk factors for Alzheimer’s include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a head injury, family history, and of course, age.
Overall good health may help reduce the risk. I recommend eating a Mediterranean diet and doing regular aerobic exercise to strengthen the heart. It’s important to do social and cognitive activities too. Reading books is great, but joining a book club and discussing the book with other people takes it to the next level.
If you’re concerned about changes in your thinking, don’t hide or shy away from it. You are not alone. It’s best to get evaluated by a cognitive specialist and know what you’re dealing with.
Dr. Anjali Patel is a fellowship-trained cognitive neurologist at Overlook Medical Center’s Atlantic Neuroscience Institute in Summit. Dr. Patel is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology.