The Medical Minute: The latest news on Alzheimer’s disease

There are 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease, two-thirds of which are estimated to be women.

Claire Flaherty-Craig, a neuropsychologist at Penn State Hershey Neuroscience Institute, said one of the main reasons the rate of occurrence is higher in women is they tend to have a longer lifespan than men.

"The disease develops with aging so there are actually more women who manifest the disease because they are living longer," she said.

The number of Alzheimer's cases is expected to more than triple by the year 2050. Flaherty-Craig said that as the baby boomers -- a large percentage of the population -- begin to age, more of them are going to develop the disease.

But age is only one of the risk factors.

Unhealthy habits are another. Lack of physical exercise and poor diet can lead to cardiovascular disease, which can affect brain health.

Stress is another risk factor. It can weaken the brain's resiliency over time.  

Genetics are also a consideration. APOE4 is the genetic marker of Alzheimer's. If testing shows a person carries the marker, they are not guaranteed to get the disease but are more vulnerable to it.

"Your overall health will dictate how well you'll fare in the face of having that gene," Flaherty-Craig said.

Changes in lifestyle can help. Many people make these changes at midlife when they are looking to improve their health. Regardless of when you start, it's never too late to improve your health.

People who eat better, quit smoking, cut back on their alcohol consumption and become more physically active will not only age more gracefully but can delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

"They can't prevent it but they can certainly hold back that condition for years," Flaherty-Craig said.

In addition to healthy changes in lifestyle, she recommends that people also exercise their brains.

She advises patients to do things that they find enjoyable. Engage in word puzzles, board games and online brain games. Some people benefit from social involvement, volunteering and engaging in rewarding activities, which is just as important as enjoyable activities.

"If it becomes forced or like a chore, it's not as beneficial because the emotional state of the individual is really important in how well they're going to pay attention, to learn, to remember," Flaherty-Craig said. "If their emotional state is not optimal there's not as much benefit."

While a person cannot make new nerve cells, they can actually strengthen the ones they do have.

Women can also delay or even prevent Alzheimer's when treated with estrogen during change of life, when there's sometimes a decline in memory. According to recent studies, women who receive replacement therapy in the early stages of menopause find long term benefits because it helps stabilize memory just like the drugs now used for Alzheimer's treatment.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's disease starts with your primary care physician. Your family doctor is in the best position to do a mental health screening during a regular checkup and monitor any changes or concerns.

If your physician sees any evidence of deterioration in memory, attention or spatial skills, he or she will send you to a specialist for further evaluation.

For more information on Alzheimer's disease, visit alz.org.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

Contacts: 
Last Updated April 08, 2014