No one is sure how Alzheimer’s starts, but it is believed
that gradually, and over a long period of time, brain cells are damaged and
destroyed. This leads to memory loss and changes in brain function.
Doctors reach a diagnosis of cognitive impairment or dementia
through a series of medical evaluations, including a physical and neurological
exam. In these exams, the doctor looks for signs of other conditions such as
stroke, Parkinson’s disease or a brain tumor that may be causing problems with
how the brain functions. Speech, reflexes, eye movement and muscle coordination
are all evaluated. Blood tests and brain imaging are often performed to rule
out other conditions as the cause of memory loss.
Thinking skills are also assessed. Mental status tests
include a mini-mental state exam, which is a series of questions that tests a
person’s everyday problem-solving ability and mental skills. A mini-cog exam
consists of asking the patient to perform two simple tasks that require recall.
While it’s usually possible to definitively diagnose
dementia, it’s not always possible to pinpoint the exact cause.
A healthy lifestyle can help lower your risk of
developing cognitive impairment and dementia when you are older.
It can also prevent cardiovascular diseases, such as
strokes and heart attacks. To reduce your risk of
developing dementia and other serious health conditions, it's
recommended that you:
Eat healthful foods low in fat, saturated fat
and cholesterol. For information on Dietary Guidelines for Americans, visit the
United States Department of Agriculture’s website, choosemyplate.org
Get regular physical activity. Try to be
physically active for at least 30 minutes most, if not all, days
Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight puts
you at risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease
Quit smoking. Smoking narrows your blood
vessels. This puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke
Lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
If you have diabetes, follow your care plan and
keep all well check-ups with your primary care provider. Maintain healthy blood
glucose levels and watch how much alcohol you drink
Choose hobbies that involve your mind (chess,
crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument)
Keep your cholesterol and blood pressure levels
in the normal ranges
See your primary care doctor for regular
Richard E. Golden, MD, Allina Health Cognitive Impairment & Memory (Dementia) Program medical director