What You Should Know About Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease

Ask the Experts

Palekar Nikhil Palekar, MD
Director, Geriatric Psychiatry
Medical Director, Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer's Disease 
Christodoulou Christopher Christodoulou, PhD
Clinical and Research Neuropsychologist 
Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer's Disease

Dementia has been called the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century. Globally, more than 47 million people are living with dementia at a worldwide cost of 818 billion dollars.

Are Alzheimer’s disease and dementia the same thing?
Dr. Palekar: Dementia isn’t a specific disease. It’s a term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. It’s an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. Alzheimer’s affects over five million people in the United States, nearly 400,000 in New York, and over 50,000 here on Long Island. For each person with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, there are approximately three family members or other unpaid caregivers, almost 16 million caretakers in all.

What causes Alzheimer’s?
Dr. Palekar: While we still don’t know how the Alzheimer’s disease process begins, it appears that damage to the brain starts a decade or more before problems show up. During this period, while people may be free of symptoms, toxic changes are taking place in the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins form amyloid plaques and tau tangles throughout the brain, causing once healthy neurons to begin working less efficiently. Over time, these neurons lose their ability to function and communicate with each other, and eventually they die. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the damage spreads to a nearby structure in the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential in forming memories. As more neurons die, affected brain regions begin to shrink. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

Isn’t is a natural consequence of aging?
Dr. Christodoulou: No. While infrequent, mild memory loss may be a part of aging, Alzheimer’s is not. That said, the greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. However, up to five percent of people with the disease have early onset, which often appears in the 40s or 50s.

What are the most common signs?
Dr. Christodoulou: A typical early sign of Alzheimer’s is a loss of memory for new information that begins to disrupt daily life. However, different people may show different initial symptoms such as: new problems with words in speaking and writing, confusion with time or space, or withdrawing from work or social activities.

Is there a cure?
Dr. Palekar: Alzheimer’s has no cure, but early detection and treatment can help. Medications may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s symptoms, providing patients and families with the opportunity to plan for the future. There are also programs that can support caregivers to help reduce their burden and stress.

Any advice on prevention?
Dr. Christodoulou: Strategies for overall healthy aging may help keep the brain healthy and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. These measures include eating a healthy diet, staying socially active, reducing stress, avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol, treating hearing loss, and exercising both the body and mind. Aerobic exercise like walking appears particularly important for prevention.

What’s the Stony Brook difference?
Dr. Palekar: If you’re concerned about your memory or that of a loved one, Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease can help. As one of only 10 such centers supported, in part, by a grant from the New York State Department of Health, ours is the only one serving Suffolk and Nassau counties. We offer assessment and diagnostic services performed by an integrated team of clinical specialists. These services include individualized care plans with treatment recommendations, referrals to services and community resources, as well as outreach to primary care and other healthcare professionals. We also offer language assistance, information about clinical trials at Stony Brook University and elsewhere, and the benefits of participation. We make every effort to serve everyone in the most effective and comfortable way possible as we aim to enhance the quality of life of people living with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or dementia disorders.

For more information about the Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease, call (631) 954-2323 or visit ceadlongisland.org.

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