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Preventing and coping with Alzheimer's disease

As the baby boomer generation continues to age, the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease is predicted to triple -- and many families are already dealing with the effects of this debilitating disease. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at the New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Dr. Dale Atkins, a psychologist, author and Alzheimer's expert, about preventing and coping with Alzheimer's disease.

Lorraine Rapp: Dr. Isaacson, let’s start with you.  So many people complain of memory loss as they get older, and they fear that they may have or may be getting Alzheimer’s disease.  What is Alzheimer’s and how is it different than age-related memory loss.

Dr. Richard Isaacson: Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder.  What that means is memory loss happens but it gets progressively worse over time and it doesn’t just affect the memory but it affects other things.  It really leads to someone not being able to take care of themselves.  When someone gets older, it’s common for things to be on the tip of our tongue or to misplace something but find it later.  Those are things that can be associated with normal aging or age-related memory loss, and the two are quite different.

Lorraine Rapp: I’ve read and heard of something regarding protein that’s in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients.  Can you explain that?

Dr. Isaacson: This protein is called amyloid.  The amyloid protein builds up abnormally in the brain.  You don’t just develop memory loss and develop Alzheimer’s disease overnight.  Alzheimer’s can start in the brain over 20 years before the first symptom of memory loss.  If the amyloid builds up, it’s kind of like if you don’t take the garbage out; you’re going to get sick.  Amyloid is that garbage, and if you can get rid of the garbage, maybe the person will do better.  Even before the amyloid protein builds up, there are other changes that we’ve noticed in the brain having to do with glucose and glucose metabolism.  I actually think that Alzheimer’s starts way before the protein gets deposited and I think this is a key question in science today. 

Linda Lowen: What do you do when you make a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?  Do you move directly into treatment?  Is there treatment?  What is the conventional therapy these days?

Dr. Isaacson: There’s no magic bullet and no magic cure or no magic way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.  It’s not like that.  You have to take a comprehensive, multi-modal approach.  There are pharmacologic approaches that include FDA-approved drugs, vitamins, medical food, supplements, and then there [are] the non-pharmacologic approaches which are absolutely as important.  Nutrition, diet is key, exercise on a regular basis, keeping the brain active; there [are] so many things.  And then of course [there is] caregiver support.  You have to treat the whole person, you treat the whole patient, and you treat the whole family.  That’s the only way that we can truly make progress with Alzheimer’s.

Linda Lowen: Dr. Atkins, in your experience, how do Alzheimer’s patients and family members handle this news?

Dr. Dale Atkins: They do every and all.  It depends on the family [and] it depends on the person.  It depends so much on the way they engage with life and have engaged with life.  Much of it depends on the family and the support system.  One of the things that’s difficult is to try and appreciate that we must look at the strengths that still remain rather than focus on that which is missing.  We can do that by maintaining an attitude of positive connection with the person of their essence, knowing what they love, going back to what they always enjoyed, and keeping their dignity.  These are some of the things that I think we can do to be sensitive to a positive way of dealing with Alzheimer’s.         

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.