March 12th, 2009
11:21 AM ET
As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers’ questions. Here’s a question for Dr. Gupta.
A lifelong friend of mine, a "young" 58-year-old, has just been diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia. She was told she's had it for 20 years, but there have been no noticeable symptoms until the last two years. Can you please shed some light on this disease?
Thank you, Kathy, for sharing you friend’s story and for the question. While there are many potential causes of dementia, Alzheimer’s is something that often springs to mind and accounts for about 50 percent of all dementia cases. It is often thought of as an older person’s disease, but it can occur in people that are relatively young, like your friend was. Having never seen your friend or examined her, let me instead talk a little about Alzheimer's. It is a tough thing to understand because we don’t quite know what causes it, or how to cure it.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurodegenerative problem. You develop these plaques that deposit themselves into the brain. They start to cause memory problems that advance to cognition problems.
But there is no question it’s one of the fastest-growing diseases in America. Over 5 million people have it and millions of others experience memory loss because of depression, dementia, or just the normal aging process.
We've come to learn that Alzheimer’s does probably have a genetic component. This may have been the case with your friend, who doctors say has had the disease for 20 years. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a person may go three to 20 years without ever getting a firm diagnosis. But truth be told, rarely are two patients’ experiences the same. People often have different rates of progression and severity of symptoms.
We know you can’t prevent or even cure Alzheimer’s disease but there are ways to boost your memory and possibly lower your risk. Start by making simple lifestyle changes. Studies people who exercise daily are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease versus those who don’t. And don’t stress the small stuff! Reducing stress protects the brain. Stock up on brain foods like those rich in antioxidants. Blueberries, prunes, nuts, salmon as well as the spice turmeric can help boost your memory.
It's important to remember that memory loss is a normal part of aging. In fact we all begin losing brain cells little by little at age 20. So forgetting part of a story once in a while is completely normal. A possible warning sign of Alzheimer’s is if you forget an entire experience. Do you misplace your keys? Well, that’s normal. In fact, I'm not quite sure where mine are right now. However someone with Alzheimer’s may misplace things in unusual places, such as putting the keys in the freezer.
Bottom line is if you spot unusual symptoms in yourself or a loved one, its important to get a properly diagnosis as soon as possible. Alzheimer’s disease may not be the reason for the memory lapses, and many dementia-like symptoms can be treated with medication.
Final thought Kathy – Alzheimer’s disease is said to be often harder for friends and family than the patient with Alzheimer’s because it changes relationships. The Alzheimer’s Association provides a 24-hour hotline for caregivers or family members looking for information, or just someone to talk to. To find out more information, click here.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.