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Healthy Tips

Alzheimer's Awareness

Q and A with a Northwestern Medicine Neurologist

Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise: the National Institutes of Health estimates as many as 5 million people in the United States may have the disease, and for those 85 years and older, the case numbers are expected to triple by 2050. Risk for Alzheimer’s is multifactorial, but includes genetic factors, age, history of head injury, obesity, depression and vascular risk factors such as diabetes and hypertension.

Alzheimer’s not only affects the person with the diagnosis, but caregivers and loved ones as well. Laura Goldstein, MD, a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine, answered our top questions about the disorder.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative neurologic disease with premature death of nerve cells and resultant failure of networks of cells in the brain. As a consequence, there is alteration in cognition and behavior.

Is there a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s?

There are treatments that may slow progression of the illness and alleviate symptoms, but none yet that cure the illness.

What are the early signs of Alzheimer’s?

The earliest symptoms of the illness generally involve short-term memory loss, such as forgetting conversations or appointments.

How will Alzheimer’s affect my loved one?

The initial symptoms usually involve difficulty forming new memories. With time, the illness may affect language, visual spatial orientation, ability to execute learned actions (such as driving or bill payment), attention, judgment and reasoning.

Often family members are more aware of the symptoms than the patient, since insight into illness is a cognitive function.

How can I care for someone with Alzheimer’s?

With patience and help from others. Regular exercise, healthy diet and activity supervision are all helpful as well as social and cognitive engagement, reassurance and redirection.

Will my loved one know who I am?

They generally will recognize family members until late stages of the illness.

If a relative has or had Alzheimer’s, how can I prevent getting the disease myself?

Regular exercise, healthy diet, remaining cognitively and socially engaged can protect against age-related cognitive loss. Control of vascular risk factors — for example, obesity, hypertension and diabetes — can also help. Recognition and treatment of depression may also be of value.