Your prostate enlarges. You get measured for dentures. You are forever changing your hearing aid batteries. Your hair goes grey, then white, then disappears altogether.
And worst of all, you can’t remember a thing.
I know I can’t. I put my reading glasses somewhere, but I have no idea where. And I put them down just a few minutes ago. My wife can’t find them either.
A few days ago I lost my sports jacket. How, you may ask, can you lose something as big as a coat? Well, I did. And I have no idea where it is.
It’s little comfort to know I’m not alone. A friend tells of leaving a cane in an airport restroom, then being unable to find the restroom to retrieve his cane. Another tells of drawing a complete blank when trying to remember where he parked his car. Was it in a lot or a parking garage or along some street? It took him an hour and a half of random wandering to find it.
Unfortunately memory loss will be a constant companion as we get older. Over 20% of the population over the age of 60 is afflicted, and nearly half of the greybeards over 85 have some form of it. Naples, with its many elderly retirees, is a cauldron of forgetfulness.
The medical community tells us not everyone who suffers from memory loss has dementia, and those who do can be afflicted by any of a number of different types.
The big kahuna is Alzheimer’s disease, a neurological disorder that’s the cause of 60-70% of dementia cases. It affects 6.5 million Americans and is our 6th leading cause of death.
Recent studies have confirmed that Alzheimer’s symptoms result from a buildup of beta-amyloid into a sticky plaque that disrupts neuron connectors.
What causes the amyloid buildup is uncertain. Although not all studies have been rigorous, some findings are emerging.
And to no one’s surprise, lifestyle plays a role.
You can reduce your chances of getting Alzheimer’s by reducing stress, controlling your weight, getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, eating well-balanced meals, keeping mentally active. Nothing profound there. Those things are good for whatever ails you.
And there’s another factor. Genes contribute. Even if you take all of the precautions and lead a super-clean life, you can still get Alzheimer’s. Why? Some 70% of the risk is heredity. And, unfortunately, you can’t choose your parents.
Once Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, what can be done?
There’s been plenty of activity, but no breakthroughs. Big Pharma has rolled out a continuum of drugs – progressively better medicines that target the amyloid plaque. All have come under fire from the medical community because of limited effectiveness. Most promising at this writing is Eisai’s Leqembi, which slows clinical decline by 27% after 18 months of treatment. More candidates are in the pipeline.
But we may not be limited to drugs. There’s an altogether different approach that’s generating excitement.
Zapping the brain with an electrical current that mimics neural activity appears to boost memory. Reporting in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers at Boston University tell of experiments to test recall in 150 people aged 65-88. Participants listened to, then tried to remember a list of things while different parts of their brains were popped with current delivered through electrode-studded hats.
And it worked. The electrical stimulation improved memory by 50-65% over four days of treatment. Scientists were able to zero in on what frequencies worked best and what areas of the brain were most receptive.
It’s breakthrough stuff, but still years away from home use. But it’s coming. Imagine picking up the lightweight gadget at your local pharmacy and settling into a routine of cognitive improvement.
First you have breakfast. Then you brush your teeth. Then you improve your memory for 20 minutes. Then you do your daily chores.
You know it might be worth a try.
I still can’t find my sports jacket.
Dr. Trecker is a chemist and retired Pfizer executive living in Naples.