Alzheimer's. Just hearing the word can create fear and anxiety—fear for the health of a parent, a spouse, a friend, a loved one—or fear for yourself. While often called dementia or senility, or both, Alzheimer’s Disease stands alone as fatal, and the seventh leading cause of death in America. While symptoms may be similar, Alzheimer's disease is a frightening and mysterious disease of progressive mental deterioration. What is Alzheimer's disease? And why do we call it that?

This progressive mental deterioration has been described throughout history. In 1906, it was German physician Dr. Alois Alzheimer who specifically identified a collection of brain cell abnormalities. Dr. Alzheimer autopsied the brain of a patient who died after years of confusion and severe memory problems. He identified dense deposits surrounding the nerve cells. Inside the nerve cells he observed twisted bands of fibers. Today, this disorder bears his name and is synonymous with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD).

The greatest risk factor is advancing age, and most individuals with AD are 65 years of age or older. About every five years after age 65, researchers believe the risk doubles. After age 85, the risk climbs to nearly 50 percent. One of the great mysteries is why the risk rises so dramatically as we age. Currently it's reported that about 53 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease. The number is even more staggering when you consider the far-reaching effect it has on loved ones, caregivers and even the economic implications.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, the three different types of Alzheimer's disease are familial, early-onset, and late-onset. Familial type is rare; it begins early and affects less than 1 percent of sufferers. Early-onset type is diagnosed before age 65 and may even begin as early as the 30s, 40s or 50s. Late-onset type is diagnosed after age 65. A grand majority (about 90%) of sufferers have late-onset type. The dense deposits that surround the nerve cells and the twisted bands of fibers inside the nerve cells—as Dr. Alzheimer observed over 100 years ago—may be occurring in the brain 10 to 20 years before any indication of trouble. These abnormalities are thought to inhibit brain function, causing the fibers to become less efficient. Then the fibers cease working altogether, and ultimately the fibers die. Sadly, this process of deterioration spreads throughout the brain.

Is there anything you can do—right now—to protect yourself and those you love from this widespread and alarming disease?

Let’s start with risk factors:

  • Aging
  • Family history and heredity
  • Experiencing a serious head injury
  • The heart-health connection

We can’t do anything about aging; that’s a given. Just like the old saying, “you can’t choose your family”…you can’t choose your genes either. Now the serious head injury risk is different. Researchers believe there may be a strong link between serious head injury and future risk of Alzheimer’s, especially when trauma is repeated or involves loss of consciousness. Of course, accidents happen, but you can increase your chances of being safe by using common sense and being proactive. Protecting your head means protecting your brain. Always wear a seat belt in a vehicle. Wear protective head gear whenever playing sports, riding a bike or motorcycle—whenever common sense dictates. And don’t forget to ‘fall-proof’ your home; and use handrails when going up or down stairs. Teach your loved ones about the importance of protecting themselves too.

The heart-health connection: Research shows that those who suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poorly-controlled diabetes or stroke are at an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

The inevitability of this mysterious disease seems almost surreal when you consider these relatively common risk factors. However, it’s encouraging to know that general lifestyle and wellness choices, combined with effective management of these common health conditions, can help you decrease your future risk of Alzheimer’s. Work with your doctor to monitor your heart health and treat any problems that arise.