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From time to time, we all misplace our keys or forget someone’s name, at least for a few minutes. This may prompt worry about “getting Alzheimer’s”, particularly if we have an older parent who was afflicted by this disease.
It’s easy to see why people are concerned. Around one in nine people aged over 65 has Alzheimer’s disease. One in three over 85 has the disease. The risk increases with age and has a genetic component.
The traditional view is that if you are younger than 65, with no impact on your daily routine on a regular basis, your memory lapses are not usually caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
These lapses are more likely due to poor sleeping habits, especially sleep apnoea (which periodically reduces oxygenation of the brain), low rates of satisfaction at work and high levels of alcohol consumption.
However, if you or your family members are worried about your memory, see your family doctor. They will check your thyroid function, nutritional status and current medications, among other things, which may affect cognitive function.
Your doctor will then test your memory with a screening tool such as the the Montreal Cognitive Assessment. This identifies people with memory or other cognitive complaints, such as looking for words, or for your car in the parking lot, and delays in making decisions.
The wild card now is that Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain starts 20 years before symptoms, when amyloid builds up in the brain. This is the first step in a cascade of events leading to dementia.
While amyloid builds up outside the neurons in the brain, twisted strands of a protein called tau form inside the neurons. This damages and kills off neurons. Eventually the brain is no longer able to compensate for the damage.
Symptoms begin with memory loss and confusion. But by the time cognitive decline is detected, the disease has already taken hold. Later, the damage in the brain impairs basic bodily functions, such as swallowing.
Fortunately the strategies that researchers are investigating to prevent Alzheimer’s disease are already accessible to all of us: