If you're feeling a little forgetful lately, don't despair. It happens to everyone. But just to make sure your brain is healthy, you can get it screened - for free.
On National Memory Screening Day - November 18 - adults with memory concerns or a family history of Alzheimer's can take a free test to establish a baseline score for future comparison. The event, sponsored by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, will also provide educational materials and local resources.
Warning signs include: forgetting people's names and events, asking repetitive questions, loss of verbal or written skills and confusion over daily routines.
Last year, an estimated 16 percent of participants in National Memory Screening Day had abnormal scores, suggesting the need for additional tests. Two-thirds of participants had concerns, but only one in five had discussed them with doctors.
While age poses the greatest risk for Alzheimer's - it most commonly strikes people over 65 - the survey also found that participants had other healthcare concerns, such as depression, diabetes and obesity - all known risk factors for the brain disorder.
The brain starts to slow after 40, but much can be done to offset the decline. For example, mental exercises such as neurobics help delay the symptoms of Alzheimer's. And Hispanics face bigger risks than other segments of the population.
Alzheimer's strikes when neurons in the brain start losing their ability to transmit electric signals - like a loose wire on a telephone. The disease causes loss of memory and other intellectual functions, and eventually affects control of muscles, leading to death. The disease is treatable, but not yet cureable.
Sixth Biggest Killer
About 5 million Americans have the disease and the incidence is expected to triple by mid-century. One in eight boomers is expected to develop Alzheimer's, which is already the sixth leading cause of death in the US.
Treatment of chronic illnesses like Alzheimer's represents 75 percent of the country's healthcare costs, or $1.5 trillion annually. The cost of a typical patient's care runs about $36,000 per year and can go much higher in nursing homes, which typically charge about twice that.
“With the increasing costs of healthcare on the minds of Americans, National Memory Screening Day offers a free and convenient way to check out memory concerns and brain health in general,” said Alzheimer's Foundation CEO Eric Hall. “Detecting a chronic disease early can end up saving money and heartache in the long run. It pays to be proactive.”
November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month and the screenings are seen by many as the first point of addressing brain health. The face-to-face screening takes approximately 5 minutes and consists of a series of questions and tasks.
The screening is available in all 50 states, include all Kmart pharmacies and many senior centers, churches, assisted living facilities and doctors' offices. More information is available through MemoryScreening.org or by calling 866-AFA-8484.
The results do not represent a diagnosis, and screeners encourage those with abnormal scores as well as those who still have concerns to pursue a full medical exam. A follow up with a clinician may reveal that the person's memory problems stem from a reversible condition such as a vitamin deficiency or thyroid problem instead of an irreversible disorder like Alzheimer's.
Early identification of Alzheimer's or a related dementia lets people benefit from treatments that can slow progression of symptoms. It also lets them plan for social services support. Research shows that counseling and other support can improve a caregiver's physical and mental health, and can delay nursing home placement of their loved ones up to 18 months.
“With the escalating incidence of Alzheimer's disease, it is quite clear that we can't afford to ignore its warning signs, as individuals and as a nation,” said Dr. John Wesson Ashford, Jr., senior research scientist at the Stanford/VA Aging Clinical Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif., and chairman of AFA's Memory Screening Advisory Board. “We must take steps to optimize healthy aging and to improve quality of life for those living with the disease, and for their families."
At the Poudre Valley Health System, Fort Collins, Colo., about 10 percent of those who were screened by nurse case managers were flagged for follow up.
The remaining 90 percent "did fine," said Jill Taylor, the system's senior services manager. "The best part was just in the participants being able to talk to the nurses and get a sense of, 'Hey, I'm doing OK,' and sharing some concerns or family history issues."