Healthcare Tips

What to Do When Your Memory Isn’t What It Used to Be

June 3, 2024

Alzheimer’s disease can be a frightening diagnosis, especially with no known cure. But knowing your risk factors and understanding how to mitigate the symptoms are key in staying in the fight against memory loss and brain damage sustained from Alzheimer’s.

What Is Alzheimer’s, Anyway?

Dementia is a term for memory loss and other cognitive issues that are serious enough to interfere with a person’s life. Alzheimer’s disease is a specific type of dementia—and the most common, accounting for 60-80% of dementia cases. 

Typically, Alzheimer’s affects people who are age 65 or older, although it can start at a younger age. It’s not a normal part of aging, but a disease in which neurons lose function and die because their communication, metabolism, and repair processes have been interrupted. It starts in the parts of the brain involved in memory and grows to affect many areas of the brain, stealing a person’s ability to live and function on their own. People typically live four to eight years after diagnosis. 

While that may sound bleak, identifying your risk factors and understanding the symptoms can help identify the illness quickly. 

We spoke with Dr. James Zhang, a neurologist at Hancock Health, to understand what risk factors may be in place for people concerned about Alzheimer’s, and what they can do to reduce their likelihood of developing the disease. 

“Symptoms usually begin with short-term memory loss,” said Dr. Zhang. “The patient can have trouble finding words during conversations, get lost in familiar places, and other small slips of the memory. It progresses to trouble with thinking and reasoning, making poor judgments and decisions, and can even change a patient’s personality and behavior.” 

While the memory troubles can be challenging, Dr. Zhang cautioned that the culmination of the disease results in the patient being unable to plan and perform familiar or even basic tasks, such as dressing or bathing. 

“It gradually kills the brain cells and shrinks the brain,” said Dr. Zhang. “Eventually, it causes the loss of basic life and social skills.”

How Is Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?

Alzheimer’s is diagnosed through taking a detailed history from the patient and their family members, then doing physical and mental status exams, neuropsychological testing, lab work, brain imaging, and other selective studies as necessary. But despite the battery of tests used to identify the disease, its cause is still somewhat unknown. 

“It’s currently believed to be a neurodegenerative disease caused by formation and deposition of amyloid proteins in the brain,” said Dr. Zhang. “But these symptoms are not specific to Alzheimer’s disease and can be seen in other neurological and non-neurological conditions, so really it’s important to rule out other, more treatable conditions.” 

What Are the Risk Factors for Developing Alzheimer’s Disease? 

While anyone could be susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease, several risk factors increase your likelihood of developing the disease, including poor diet, lack of physical exercise, smoking, and untreated medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease or even hearing loss. 

Even simple acts such as maintaining a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and cutting out smoking can all help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

If you suspect a loved one may be developing Alzheimer’s—or you are concerned about your own risk—speak to your primary care provider today.