Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

In an open letter to the American public in October 2018 Justice Sandra Day O’Connor shocked the American public with the revelation she had been diagnosed as being in the early stages of dementia. Years ago, she made the difficult decision to step down from her position as the first female justice on the United States Supreme Court to care for her husband, John, who had been diagnosed with dementia. As she is one of the most powerful and brilliant legal minds of our time, Justice O’Connor’s diagnosis highlights the unpredictability of dementia and that dementia can strike anyone at any time.

What exactly is dementia?

According to the 2018 World Alzheimer’s Report, it is our most feared disease that someone develops every three seconds. The likelihood of developing dementia increases with age, but many older adults are unaware that they have it. Of the 5.7 million Americans who have dementia, only half have a formal diagnosis by a physician. Although dementia is often used interchangeably with Alzheimer’s disease, they are not the same. The Mayo Clinic describes dementia as “a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning.” Alzheimer’s is one of the most common types of dementia, followed by vascular dementia and Lewey body dementia.

Dementia can make us feel powerless, whether as health professionals or individuals seeking to stay healthy in mind and body. Subtle symptoms of dementia often begin years or even decades before a diagnosis occurs. So what can we do, right now, to reduce our risk of developing dementia? Studies vary in recommendations. Some professionals recommend staying in school through age 15 to avoid social isolation. On the other hand, it can be confusing to determine how to prevent dementia. Yet, it is imperative to try. A 2017 report by the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care states that up to one-third of dementia diagnoses might be preventable. The Alzheimer’s Association offers these prevention guidelines:

    • Don’t smoke
    • Keep blood pressure, cholesterol and blood-sugar levels within recommended limits
    • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
    • Exercise
    • Limit alcohol consumption

Research on dementia prevention and treatment is expanding, with intriguing new recommendations coming out regularly. Stay informed. Assess what you read and be sure that the recommendations are evidence-based. After all, dementia impacts not only the person diagnosed, but also loved ones, families, health professions, communities, and nations. Finding a cure and treatments to stay the progression of the disease is fast becoming a global priority.

Interested in learning more about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Check out HSC 416 Introduction to Gerontology, or at the graduate level, PBH 647 Vulnerable Populations.