I was six years old when I learned just how devastating Alzheimer’s Disease is. My beloved grandfather who was my best friend and a person who told me every day that he loved me more than he loved himself started forgetting who I was. He knew I was related, but couldn’t pinpoint just how. It was devastating to see him forget his family, and when he died when I was 14 years old, I hoped and prayed I would never be affected by this horrible disease again. A few years later my doting grandmother (his wife) started showing signs of dementia, which was my worst nightmare. Thankfully the medications she was on at the time slowed down the progression and we were able to do all the fun stuff grandmothers and granddaughters should get to do like shopping, crafting and making goofy videos of us singing together! In 2010 her repetitiveness rapidly turned to hallucinations. She started talking all day and night to people who weren’t in her room, wanted to leave our home to catch a bus, and she too forgot who we were. We hoped it was just a side effect of a medication she had recently been prescribed at the time and that her dementia hadn’t progressed to Alzheimer’s Disease, but unfortunately it had.
As her granddaughter and full-time caregiver, my life has never been the same. I’ve had to watch this disease rob my grandfather of his memory and has now completely robbed my grandmother of hers and her ability to function on her own. This horrific disease has destroyed two people I love and adore in this world, and while I hope and pray Alzheimer’s Disease will not affect anyone else in my family, I will be prepared if it does since the disease runs in my family.
With that being said, I’m very passionate about bringing more awareness to Alzheimer’s Disease, and I was honored to have the chance to interview nationally-renowned neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Gary Small who is also an Alzheimer’s disease and memory expert, professor of psychiatry, and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is someone I’ve admired over the years and was kind enough to join me this week to discuss just what Alzheimer’s Disease is, why it’s a growing health problem, the most common symptoms and risk factors, and an exciting new treatment option that was recently released.
Candace Rose: What is Alzheimer’s Disease and why is it a growing health problem?
Dr. Gary Small: “Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive brain disorder that is characterized by difficulties with memory, thinking and it eventually affects the patient’s behavior to the degree that patients can’t live independently. Now we’re seeing more and more of it because our population is aging, and age is the single greatest risk factor for developing the disease. By age 65 or older the risk is 10%, by age 85 or older it can get as close to 50%. It’s a growing problem and we’re only going to see the numbers increase. Today, an estimated 5.3 million U.S. citizens are afflicted. By 2050 it’s predicted that we’ll see that number triple.”
Candace Rose: Are there any other risk factors that we all need to know about?
Dr. Gary Small: “We know that genetics are important. If you have a close family member with the disease, that increases your own risk. But for the average person, non-genetic factors are even more important. How we choose to live every day is a critical issue. I wrote a recent book “2 Weeks To A Younger Brain” about what we can do to protect our brains from Alzheimer’s Disease and lower our risk. Engaging in regular physical activity, eating a heart-healthy diet is also good for your brain, trying to minimize stress and keep our minds active and learn how to compensate for memory decline. All of these strategies can have a huge impact on how well our brains age.”
Candace Rose: What are the warning signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease and how do you recognize them?
Dr. Gary Small: “It’s sometimes very tricky to differentiate normal aging from Alzheimer’s Disease. All of us have forgetfulness as we age. We might forget someone’s name, or forget an appointment or where we put things but that doesn’t generally interfere with our everyday life. When these problems start interfering with life, when other people start commenting and expressing their concerns it’s very important to see the doctor sooner rather than later because we know that the sooner we arrive at an accurate diagnosis, the sooner we can start people on the appropriate treatments.”
Candace Rose: Is there anything that patients or their caregivers can do to help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease?
Dr. Gary Small: “There really is no cure or drug that can treat the underlying disease from progressing, but there are medicines that do help with the symptoms. For example there’s one type of medicine that affects a brain chemical called acetylcholine, which is involved in learning and memory – these are medicines like Aricept or Exelon. There’s another medicine Namenda XR that affects another brain chemical called glutamate that’s involved in learning and memory. Many people may not know that there is a new drug called Namzaric that combines Namenda XR and Donepezil. That’s a once a day dose that helps patients with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s.
Now of course all medicines do have their risks so it’s important to talk with the doctor if there are any apparent side effects that may emerge.”
Candace Rose: I’m familiar with Aricept and Namenda, my grandmother has been on both; but can you tell me more about the new drug Namzaric, please?
Dr. Gary Small: “Well, the new drug is essentially the first and only treatment that combines those two proven medicines. It’s a single once-a-day daily capsule. What’s nice about it is that it does effect two different neurotransmitters in the brain, it can be taken once a day, which is helpful because we know as people age they tend to be on lots of different medicines, and as much as we can simplify the medication regimen, the better it’s going to be.
Now, I had talked about early diagnosis, that’s important because sometimes Alzheimer’s Disease is not the cause of the underlying mental impairment. It can be from medication toxicity, it can be from a medical condition such as a thyroid imbalance or even depression can present like Alzheimer’s Disease in older people.”
Candace Rose: Do you think that we will see a vaccine for Alzheimer’s Disease in the future or that we’ll know how to prevent it in the future?
Dr. Gary Small: “I’m optimistic that we’re going to have more effective approaches and perhaps a vaccine, perhaps another kind of treatment and those studies are important to continue, but in the meantime it’s important for everyone to know that there are symptomatic treatments available. It’s important to see the doctor sooner rather than later, and that there is a brain-healthy lifestyle that we should all be embracing to help increase our cognitive health and lower our future risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.”
Candace Rose: Do you have any tips for caregivers who are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s Disease?
Dr. Gary Small: “Caregivers should keep in mind that it’s important not to try to do everything on their own. Caregiving is a very difficult task. 50% of primary caregivers develop depression, so ask for help from family members. Reach out for local resources – The Alzheimer’s Association has chapters in most major cities throughout the U.S. Join a caregiver group, it can be a rewarding experience to care for a loved one who has taken care of you, but also it can be quite draining and burdensome, so protecting yourself is very important if you’re going to provide the best of care.”
Candace Rose: Do you have any additional tips or information you’d like to share with us?
Dr. Gary Small: “I think that people need to keep in mind that this is a condition that is affecting almost everyone. It’s something that we can do something about. Go online and get some help. The Alzheimer’s Association website is Alz.Org, or if you want to find out more about my book, go to DrGarySmall.com, or even search online about Alzheimer’s. There’s a lot of important information and resources that are available.”
Candace Rose: Where can patients and/or their caregivers go for more information the treatment options you mentioned?
Dr. Gary Small: “They can just look up Namzaric on the internet and they can find out more about the medication, and they can look up any of these medicines online. Also, in addition to looking for information for yourself, the most important source is your doctor because there’s information online but there’s also the relationship with the doctor which is critically important.”