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November is National Alzheimer's Disease month. CNN medical correspondent Judy Fortin talked about the illness with Dr. John Morris, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Fortin: When should people start worrying about Alzheimer's?
Morris: Right around age 65 the frequency of Alzheimer's disease begins to accelerate. Most people who have Alzheimer's disease are 75 years and older. The most prevalent risk factor for Alzheimer's is old age. Of course, our society is aging so Alzheimer's disease is becoming an epidemic among our older adults.
Fortin: Are there other factors besides age that increase risk?
Morris: What has come out recently is that things that are bad for the heart also turn out to be bad for the brain, so hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes. All of these factors in mid-life seem to put us at higher risk for developing Alzheimer's disease or dementia decades later.
Fortin: What role does family history play?
Morris: It is very important to underscore that just because a parent or uncle has Alzheimer's does not necessarily mean that you are going to get it yourself. Most family history of Alzheimer's means there is a susceptibility that can be passed on from generation to generation, but that inherited susceptibility does not mean that you are destined to get Alzheimer's disease.
Fortin: Is Alzheimer's disease difficult to diagnosis?
Morris: It surprised many people that Alzheimer's disease has no test. You can't do a blood test or a CT scan or an MRI scan and diagnose Alzheimer's disease. It takes time. You have to interview someone who knows that patient well. How has their memory changed? Is it interfering with their ability to carry out their usual activities? It takes time, it takes experience. Even then, we're correct about 90 percent of the time, but 10 percent of the time we're not.
Fortin: What's the difference between normal memory loss and Alzheimer's?
Morris: I think the main difference is, does the memory loss represent a change for that person and does it interfere with their ability to carry out their usual activities. All of us have memory lapses, that's part of today's life, but does it stop us from doing things we once did or do we need help in doing things that we once did. For example, if you forget your keys can you retrace your steps and find them? Most of us can. In Alzheimer's disease you can't do that; other people have to do it for you.
Fortin: What can you do to keep your mind sharp?
Morris: Everyone talks about things like crossword puzzles or playing card games like bridge. These may be good, but just staying engaged with other people in conversations in interactions all can be a very valuable and keeping our brains sharp. The data seem to show that people who are socially isolated are more at risk of becoming demented.