By Aimee Rice, PharmD
Contract Clinical Educator at VMS BioMarketing
Our brain is the gatekeeper of our thoughts. It houses fond memories, painful struggles, and funny anecdotes that shape and give meaning to our lives. Not only does it help us navigate our day-to-day activities, it also helps to regulate our bodies. It reminds us to breathe and to keep our hearts beating. As we grow, we see its miraculous capacity to store a world of knowledge and provide direction and support to our bodies.
Just like sagging skin, greying hair, and all the other unfortunate results of aging that take their toll on the human body, our brains too, begin to show signs of age. We often attribute forgetfulness to growing older, but could it be a sign of a more serious condition?
Dementia is a very broad term for lesser-known disorders that impact memory, understanding, and behavior. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease which is an irreversible deterioration of the brain and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. It kills more Americans than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. More than six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is most commonly found in people over 65 years of age. Women are about 60% more likely to suffer from it than men.
Researchers are still trying to discover the exact causes of Alzheimer’s. However, what we do know is that it is thought to be due to a combination of lifestyle choices, environmental factors, and genetics. Studies show that the brains of impacted individuals may contain abnormal clumps or amyloid plaques, as well as bundles of fibers or tangles. They may also have a loss of connection to many brain cells which transmit messages between different areas of the brain, or to other parts of the body.
Due to the complexity of the disease itself, there is not a one-size-fits-all treatment. We have yet to find a cure, but research continues on in hopes one will be found. The main approach for treatment is to delay the progression of the disease so that memory and brain function can be preserved as long as possible. Early signs of dementia should be met with quick diagnosis and a plan for treatment.
Alzheimer’s and dementia deaths increased by 16% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many individuals avoided routine doctor visits for fear of catching the disease. A study completed by Harvard University showed that the number of outpatient doctor visits had declined nearly 60% by early April, following the start of the pandemic. Since that time, an increase has occurred, but the number of visits was still roughly one-third lower than what was seen before the Coronavirus outbreak.
Alzheimer's disease impairs judgment and problem-solving skills, increasing a person's risk of injury. It is extremely important for disease sufferers to have a personal caregiver. Due to lockdown regulations, many Alzheimer’s patients were left without adequate care, leading to more deaths and increased progression of the disease. COVID-19 impacts the elderly and patients with comorbidities more severely, which puts Alzheimer’s patients at an increased risk. Their decreased cognitive understanding may also have led to increased susceptibility in contracting COVID-19. Their condition makes them less likely to understand and follow public safety guidelines such as the use of face coverings and proper hygiene recommendations. The COVID safety requirements may also disrupt important social interactions and routines that were preventing the progression of the disease in certain individuals.
While we slowly return to normalcy, it is important to remember to continue prioritizing our health, and to maintain regular check-up visits. Despite the fact that there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, the benefits of exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet have shown a positive correlation with brain function in many other chronic diseases.
Alzheimer's Disease Fact Sheet. National Institute on Aging.
Brown EE et al. Anticipating and Mitigating the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias. Mehrotra A et al. What Impact Has COVID-19 Had on Outpatient Visits? Commonwealth Fund.
What can you do to avoid Alzheimer's disease? Harvard Health.
What is Alzheimer's? Facts and Figures. Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia.