LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 5, 2013) - The following column appeared in the Lexington Herald-leader on Sunday, March 3.
By Dr. Greg Jicha
Although Alzheimer’s disease is commonly recognized as a disease likely to affect people as they age, many people do not know about the significant contribution of cerebrovascular disease to the development of memory problems and dementia.
This disease can look identical to Alzheimer’s and can devastate memory and thinking abilities.
Cerebrovascular disease develops from accumulated wear and tear on the vascular system of the brain. Fifty percent of people develop cerebrovascular disease after the age of 50. By age 90, nearly 90 percent of people have cerebrovascular damage to their brain. This data is based on a study of more than 4,000 people as part of the National Alzheimer Initiative, including participants at the University of Kentucky.
Cerebrovascular disease leading to vascular dementia is different than stroke. It is a slowly progressive injury to the brain as a result of untreated risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, poor diet and sedentary lifestyle.
These risk factors lead to a loss of nerve cells and the connections between them, even in the absence of stroke.
Cerebrovascular disease is a silent killer that remains poorly understood. Kentucky is located in what is known as the “stroke belt”, where strokes and cerebrovascular disease are common. You or someone you love could already be suffering from memory loss as a result of cerebrovascular disease, or be at risk of it.
Researchers at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging have recently been awarded over $2 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study such cerebrovascular disease. Those of us with interests in neurology will work with colleagues at the UK Gill Heart Institute and UK College of Nursing, to develop mechanisms to aggressively diagnose, treat and prevent this condition.
If you believe that you or someone you know may be at risk of cerebrovascular disease, the first step is to talk to your doctor about how you can lower your risk levels. Although age is a risk factor for the condition, it is possible to age in a healthy manner with lowered risk of cerebrovascular disease and related memory loss.
So, what can you do to lower your risk? As the saying goes in the health care field, what is good for the heart is also good for the brain. So maintaining healthy weight, blood pressure and blood sugar numbers, as well as cholesterol in a healthy range, are your first steps in fighting this disease. Exercising (even moderately), eating a range of healthful foods, and being a nonsmoker are also important.
While we work to learn more about cerebrovascular disease and its effects on memory, the best course of action is for everyone to lower their risk factors as far as possible, and to see their health care provider with any concerns.
Dr. Gregory Jicha is the McCowan Endowed Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease at the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging.