By Jacque Reid
When news broke that lifestyle expert, restauranteur and former model B. Smith was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, it broke my heart. I’ve interacted with B many times over the years while eating at one of her restaurants (my fav at Sag Harbour), interviewing her, or just seeing her at an event. Every time she was warm, bubbly and just enjoying life. I saw a very different B when I watched a clip of the video of her upcoming CBS Sunday Morning interview where she struggles to remember what date or month it is. In the interview, you will see her long time husband and business partner, Dan Gasby, by her side. That of course made me think of what life would/must be like for Single women with Alzheimer’s.
Many of us feel we are too young to worry about getting Alzheimer’s, but experts say people can get it as young as in their 40s and 50s, and women are 3x more likely to contract the disease after 65 years of age. I worry about it because my grandfather died of Alzheimer’s and I have an uncle that was recently diagnosed early with the disease. Could that be my fate? I decided to get some vital information for all of us from The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America president Carol Steinberg.
S&LF: How tough is this to diagnosis for women who live alone?
AFA: If a woman recognizes that she is having memory concerns, we recommend she discuss those concerns with her doctor. In the earlier stages of the disease, she might be astute enough to detect that her mental abilities have changed …. that, for example, she is forgetting names or appointments more frequently, or is confused when driving.
As the disease progresses, someone living alone may not have the input of others as a barometer to gauge the severity of the symptoms she may be experiencing. Hopefully, a visitor would pick up on the changes and encourage the person to get a check-up. Or the physician would notice something is amiss at a regular visit.
Unfortunately, sometimes people—whether living alone or not—let fear and denial prevent them from finding out what’s really going on. But it’s important to keep in mind that memory problems don’t necessarily mean a person has Alzheimer’s disease. There are a variety of conditions that could cause memory problems. Some of these include thyroid issues, vitamin deficiencies and depression – all of which are treatable and curable.
S&LF: What are the benefits of catching it early?
AFA: Being proactive about early detection of Alzheimer’s disease brings a number of benefits, but mostly, it’s about improving quality of life.
While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are approved medications that may help slow progression of symptoms. And there are behavioral interventions that can help. There are lifestyle choices that may make a difference—eating right, exercising, doing mental activities and being social.
Early detection also offers an opportunity to participate in the care planning process – getting legal and financial affairs in order, making sure loved ones are aware of end-of-life wishes, and even exploring a care facility just in case that move is necessary. It’s important because this disease is relentless, and over time, a person loses the ability to communicate or have the judgment to make these personal choices.
Early detection may also allow a woman to participate in a clinical trial—to hopefully help herself and the next generation.
S&LF: What are signs that women who live alone should be looking for?
AFA: There are two basic categories of symptoms – cognitive or intellectual and psychiatric, which can also be referred to as behavioral.
Some of the warning signs are forgetfulness and an inability to remember facts or events. Forgetting where you put the keys is normal and wouldn’t necessarily be cause for concern. Forgetting what the keys are used for, on the other hand, could be indicative of Alzheimer’s disease. Also, in Alzheimer’s disease, short-term memory is affected before long-term memory. Losing the ability to communicate effectively can be another signal. An individual may forget common words, or she may be unable to understand spoken or written words or may read and not understand a word of what is read.
But Alzheimer’s disease is not just memory loss. It is also confusion, lack of judgment, personality changes. Things that were once rote, like brushing teeth or driving to the store, are all of a sudden challenging and confusing.
S&LF: What are things we can do to prevent Alzheimer’s?
AFA: Unfortunately, we can’t say definitively that there is a way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. But we do know things that may help reduce risk factors.
Adopt a brain healthy lifestyle. Many of the things we do for heart health are also good for brain health – eating a diet low in saturated fat that is rich in antioxidants, choosing a variety of brightly colored vegetables and fruits, etc.
Mental exercises are also a good way to keep the brain sharp. Things like learning a new language, doing crossword or numeric puzzles, reading, even brushing your teeth with your opposite hand force your brain to think in different ways.
And, of course, as with heart health, physical exercise is important to brain health. Strive for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five times per week.
And one of the worst things people can do is isolate themselves. Be social. Read the newspaper and then talk about current events with neighbors. Go to a support group or community center to stay engaged.
S&LF: Is there a test that will determine if you will get it or the likelihood thereof?
AFA: There is not currently a test that definitively can predict whether someone will get Alzheimer’s disease. There are some tests to see if a person has Alzheimer’s genes, but, having that gene does not necessarily mean you will develop symptoms of the disease.
For more information, go to www.alzfdn.org