November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month. Alzheimer's is the leading form of dementia and affects millions of Americans. To find out the latest about the disease, LifeTimes talked with Dr. Amanda G. Smith, an associate professor at the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The institute is "dedicated to the prevention, treatment and cure of Alzheimer's disease and related memory disorders."
What is a good way to define just what Alzheimer's is?
It's a continuum people go through, the result of which is dementia.
What is promising in research on Alzheimer's?
In 2011, we were able to detect the amyloid protein as it built up in the brain. That revolutionized research. Before that, we could only detect the amyloid protein in the brains of people who had died of Alzheimer's.
Will research find a cure for the disease?
The real research to finding a cure is going to be prevention. We're involved in two studies and about to be involved in a third (to identify) people who are amyloid positive and give them drugs that remove amyloids in hope that they will never cross over into dementia.
Are there any other avenues of research?
We are looking at other proteins in the brain, but 90 percent of the research out there is on amyloids.
How widespread is Alzheimer's for Americans?
It's estimated that about 5 million (people) in the U.S. have it. Of those, about 200,000 are early onset, meaning before the age of 55. About 50,000 in the Tampa Bay area have it.
What can people do to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's?
Brain health in midlife is very important. Everything that is a risk factor for heart disease is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's. ... Healthy diet, exercising, not smoking, keeping our brains mentally stimulated — these things will certainly delay early onset and possibly prevent.
Some articles suggest people learn a new language in later life. What kinds of mental stimulation is best?
It's one thing to learn Spanish. Learn a language with different characters or where the words read in a different direction. When it's that much harder, it's better for your brain. At the same time, you don't want to take on things that frustrate you. Stress isn't good for the brain. Reducing stress is helpful.
Are there other challenges we can do?
Do things with your senses differently from normal. Close your eyes at your front door and walk into your house. Try writing with your left hand. Anything that makes us feel challenged without too much stress. There are lots of books available with brain workouts.
What if someone is concerned about whether he or she is developing Alzheimer's?
If there are any questions as to whether one's memory is starting to change ... don't wait or think it's normal aging. Sometimes it is and sometimes it's not. The sooner that we intervene, the more chance we have of changing the course of people's lives. The sooner we give drugs, the more chance we have of them working.
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