Alzheimer’s: Answering questions, questioning answers

For the opening session of its new 2016 Health Series, the Greens at Cannondale invited neurologist Dr. Dario Zagar, president of Associated Neurologists of Southern Connecticut, to discuss The Aging Brain.

Zagar has been a leader of Alzheimer’s research studies and the most recent clinical trials. His reputation drew a large audience, with specific questions, all of which Zagar answered, noting that the cause, diagnosis and best treatment for Alzheimer’s patients isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” situation. Removing the stigma of Alzheimer’s followed by early treatment can improve the outcome.

Zagar explained that Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, causing a progressive deterioration of the nerve cells of the brain. It was once thought that an absolute diagnosis could be done only after death, but new imaging techniques make it possible to see how toxic amyloid protein and tangles of plaque destroy healthy brain cells, shrinking the brain and causing memory loss, faulty thinking, irrational behavior, and delusions.

But it’s important to distinguish between normal aging of the brain and development of dementia. Losing keys and forgetting names are signs of normal aging. Dementia is suspected when behavior interferes with daily life, and the person requires more and more assistance.  

Research is attempting to change this pattern with medications that decrease amyloid production, assumed to be the major source of brain cell deterioration. Aracept is currently the most-prescribed medication being used to decrease amyloid production. A steady stream of questions had such answers as:

  • Aspirin doesn’t affect memory.

  • Vitamins D and B12 can be helpful but dosage that’s too high can be harmful.

  • Benadryl can affect memory adversely. So can certain eye drops.

  • Medications to reduce cholesterol may be detrimental.

It is always advisable to consult a physician or pharmacist to measure the benefits versus the risks of medications, including over-the-counter products. Zagar admitted many times that “we just don’t know. We don’t know why some people with Alzheimer’s deteriorate rapidly and not others.”

Irritability is a serious problem for some patients, requiring special treatment, but it isn’t a problem for others. Often caregivers just have to go along with difficult symptoms, rather than keep searching for answers.

There are several studies indicating that lifestyle can change the progression of Alzheimer’s. Diet, exercise, socialization, activities, stress reduction — the same ingredients that are recommended for cardiac and pulmonary health — are applicable to Alzheimer’s.

The statement that “if you live long enough, you’ll probably get Alzheimer’s” isn’t true. With the opportunity for persistent research, there is no basis for that premise. As terrible and frightening as this disease is, the more advanced studies and clinical trials that occur the closer we will be to conquering the mystery and misery of this disease. The value to the community of The Greens Health Series, disseminating information from top-notch doctors, is attracting larger audiences with each event.