Alzheimer’s disease may not be one of the fastest-acting illnesses, but its psychological and emotional effects on patients and their families can be devastating. Although a cure for the disease has yet to be found, there are many lifestyle changes that can be taken to help prevent and slow the development of Alzheimer’s.
This week on “Take Care,” Drs. Richard Isaacson and Dale Atkins discuss some of the issues associated with Alzheimer’s and how to fight the disease once you or someone you know has been diagnosed. Dr. Isaacson is the director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. He is also the author of "Alzheimer’s Treatment Alzheimer’s Prevention: A Patient & Family Guide" and "The Alzheimer’s Diet: A Step-by-Step Nutritional Approach for Memory Loss Prevention and Treatment." Dr. Atkins is a licensed psychologist who works with Alzheimer’s patients and their families.
Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with both Dr. Isaacson and Dr. Atkins.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurological disorder, which means that memory loss associated with the disease gets worse over time. Unlike age-related memory loss, it can have a profound impact on the patient’s lifestyle. The disease is the most common form of dementia, a general disorder referring to problems with memory and cognitive function.
Patients are diagnosed with the help of health histories, lab tests, brain scans, and physical examinations. Depression, difficulty sleeping, and trouble remembering to do simple tasks are some of the most common symptoms of the disease. Unfortunately, testing for Alzheimer’s is not foolproof.
“We don’t have the perfect tests yet to figure out if someone has Alzheimer’s but we try to do the best we can,” said Isaacson.
One of the primary signs of Alzheimer’s is the presence of amyloid proteins, which build up in the brain. Isaacson describes the protein as one that builds up in the brain over the course of many years.
“You don’t just develop memory loss overnight. Alzheimer’s can start in the brain over 20 years before the first symptom of memory loss,” Isaacson says.
Because the disease can take root so many years before symptoms are observed, taking steps to prevent the disease at an early age is important. Diets that are low in carbohydrates and regular exercise are two effective modes of prevention that can also help slow the development of the disease in diagnosed patients.
“[T]here are absolutely things that anyone can do to take better care of themselves and also to treat the disease more effectively,” says Isaacson.
Alzheimer’s can be just as difficult on family members as it is on the patient. Dr. Atkins says that the key for caretakers is to “look at the strength that still remains rather than focus on that which is missing.”
Because helping an Alzheimer’s patient is such a demanding job, Atkins says it is important that caretakers take time to help themselves as well. Exercise and hobbies are helpful as well as maintaining connections with family and other community members to avoid feelings of isolation.
“I find that when caregivers take care of themselves, [they] come back refreshed,” said Atkins.
As science progresses and research continues, the development of a cure for Alzheimer’s may not be far away. For now, however, the best that patients and caregivers can do is to follow their physician’s advice and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Atkins says that “It [Alzheimer’s] is a journey, and it can be a very frightening one. But it also can be one where you can feel connected in a way that you never knew was possible.”