Ask the Experts
Clinical and Research Neuropsychologist>
Director, Geriatric Psychiatry
Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer's Disease
Dementia is 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. It has been called one of the greatest global challenges for health and social care in the 21st century.
What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?
Dr. Palekar: Dementia itself is not a disease. It’s a symptom of an underlying brain disorder. There are many possible causes of dementia, some of which can be eliminated with proper diagnosis and treatment, particularly if the cause is found promptly. 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.
What causes Alzheimer’s?
Dr. Palekar: While we still don’t know how the 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 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.
Is it a natural result of aging?
Dr. Christodoulou: No. While infrequent, mild memory loss may be a part of aging, Alzheimer’s is not. Yet 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 one’s 40s or 50s.
What are the most common signs?
Dr. Christodoulou: A typical early sign of Alzheimer’s is loss of memory for new information that begins to disrupt daily life. Examples include 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: No, but early detection and treatment can help. Medications may slow the progression of 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 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: The Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease is one of only 10 such centers supported in part by a grant from the N.Y. State Department of Health. And it’s the only one serving Suffolk and Nassau counties. Our clinical specialists offer assessment and diagnostic services that include individualized care plans with treatment recommendations, referrals to services and community resources, outreach to primary care and other healthcare professionals, language assistance, and information about clinical trials at Stony Brook and elsewhere.
To make an appointment, call (631) 954-2323.
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