Today, there are 64,000 people in Colorado living with Alzheimer's disease. For each individual with the diagnosis, there are at least three other people whose lives have been changed forever by the disease.
Alzheimer's is the generic term meaning persistent loss of memory and confusion. It is the most common form of dementia. We usually think of Alzheimer's as a disease of the elderly, but about 15 percent of all cases occur in people younger than 65. The youngest known individual diagnosed with it was just 28 years old.
We know age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's, but gender, head injury, stroke, diabetes and low education also are risk factors.
Research suggests we can reduce our risk of getting Alzheimer's by avoiding head injury, stroke, diabetes and obesity, by exercising the body and the brain regularly and by eating a heart-healthy diet.
The best treatments for those with the disease today are mostly medications that may improve memory for a few months or even years. While there is not yet a cure, there are more than 50 experimental drugs being tested, providing hope that in the next one to five years, we can stop or even reverse the disease.
Alzheimer's disease is characterized by large deposits of two abnormal proteins in the brain, called amyloid and tau, which form what we commonly refer to as plaques and tangles. The drugs being developed and tested today operate by fighting the formation of one of these proteins. This is done either by preventing one of these proteins from being deposited, or by removing the proteins once they have been deposited.
Some drugs already approved for other diseases such as diabetes are being looked at to see if they could actually prevent the formation of the proteins.
A future free from Alzheimer's is nearer than we think, although more research is needed to develop better treatments and to eventually find a cure. The latest medical studies released recently at the Alzheimer's Association Prevention Conference in Washington, D.C., are providing hope for the future for people living with the disease.
Colorado has been projected as one of two states to have the highest percentage increase in the nation of diagnosed Alzheimer's cases in the next 20 years.
So, what can you do to help protect yourself?
All of us can take good care of our hearts, which in turn leads to maintaining a healthy brain. Keep your mind active by reading, doing crossword, word and number puzzles, as well as other brain-teasing activities.
Eat a low-fat, low-salt diet and exercise regularly. If it's good for your heart, it's good for your brain. And if you are at higher risk for Alzheimer's due to a family history of diabetes, talk with your doctor today.
The Alzheimer's Association has more information in several formats. A helpline is available at 800-272-3900. To take action against Alzheimer's, you can register to become a "champion" at www.actionalz.org. For details about the Colorado chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, go to www.alzco.org.
Sara Spaulding, APR, is vice president of communications for the Alzheimer's Association Colorado Chapter in Denver.