By Lloyd I. Sederer, MD
Remember these eight words: bus, screwdriver, mango, playground, swallow, sun, couch and rectangle.
Wait a few minutes. How many can you recall?
How many words of three letters or more can you make from the following scrambled letters: A-E-L-S-K
How many did you create? There are 18.
How many times this past week did you struggle to remember a name? Or forget where you put something?
Just about everyone has some loss of memory as the decades collect. Don’t confuse normal aging with Alzheimer’s. But some people as they enter their 50s and 60s experience what is called “mild cognitive impairment” (MCI). They are often forgetful, can become a bit confused and display other symptoms suggestive of mild Alzheimer’s — but they can manage. However, MCI heralds a far greater likelihood of developing AD — as great as 15 times more risk. Some regard MCI as a transition to AD.
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the demon of older age. A small percentage of people (5 percent) will fall ill to its neurological destruction before the age of 65. But as we age into the 70s, 80s and beyond the numbers affected grow substantially. Today, every 70 seconds a person in the U.S. develops AD; estimates are that this rate will rise to every 30 seconds by 2050 as we all live longer. Not all dementia is due to Alzheimers: vascular dementia (due to blood vessel narrowing or stroke in the brain) accounts for perhaps 40 percent of severe memory problems (and other symptoms). But AD is the greatest threat to our memory — and even more so to our very sense of identity as we grow old.
While there is a genetic risk to developing Alzheimer’s (1 in 5 people carry the gene type APOE-4 that increases the risk of AD), having the risk does not mean you will get the disease. In fact, most experts do not recommend that patients get genetic testing to determine if they have this gene type. Instead, sound advice centers on what we can do to prevent, delay and reduce the impact of AD. In fact, what can be done is principally under our control: It is in how we lead our lives.
Feeling like you need to do something? Well, the prescription is quite clear, useful and even feasible. Enter Dr. Gary Small and his co-author (and spouse) Gigi Vorgan. Dr. Small is an internationally-renowned expert on aging and dementias; he is a professor and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Ms. Vorgan is a professional writer and producer for film and television. Their collaborations have produced books as varied as “The Memory Bible” (a NYT bestseller) and a collection of short stories called “The Naked Lady Who Stood On Her Head.”