Millions of adults and their families across the country are affected by memory loss issues, including Alzheimer's disease, a brain disorder that destroys brain cells. As life expectancy increases, the number of people who are impacted grows, making memory loss an even more prominent issue for Americans, particularly those over the age of 60. Families often mistake the initial stages of memory loss or Alzheimer's disease, writing it off as forgetfulness or normal aging; correcting this misunderstanding is best achieved through education and awareness.

What is Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's disease was first diagnosed in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German neurologist and psychiatrist. Its symptoms were once considered to be synonymous with normal aging or senility, until the 1970s when the medical community developed new tests to identify the disease. Over the last 20 years, specialists have established genetic links to the disease through pathophysiology, making it possible to slow Alzheimer's progression using a range of treatments and exercises.

Risk factors

Age continues to be the strongest risk factor for experiencing memory loss. People over the age of 65 are at higher risk than the population overall, and this risk increases with age. Additionally, people with an immediate relative with memory loss issues or Alzheimer's disease have a 10 to 30 percent higher risk of developing the disease. Other genetic factors, such as a history of cholesterol problems or diabetes, increase the risks for developing Alzheimer's. Overall, evidence suggests that three lifestyle components -- social, mental and physical activity -- are inversely associated with memory loss and Alzheimer's disease. In other words, the more you interact with others and stimulate your brain and body, the smaller the chance that you will experience memory loss.

Knowing the signs

Memory impairment is the most prominent symptom of Alzheimer's disease, and is often its earliest symptom. Language dysfunction is also an initial sign, including difficulty finding words, ambiguous or roundabout speech and reduced vocabulary. The misplacement of items or difficulty navigating in first unfamiliar, then familiar terrain can also indicate memory loss. Later signs include the inability to recognize objects and faces. Family members and coworkers may also notice that someone suffering from memory loss issues or Alzheimer's disease is generally less motivated and engaged, and are likely to be agitated, uninhibited and may even act irrationally at times.

How to avoid and deal with memory issues

So you may ask: "What are some measures I can take to slow down the process of memory loss, or what can my parents or grandparents do to try to prevent any issues from arising?" While there is no simple answer to these questions, we have found that as long as there are no other serious medical conditions, seniors should maintain or increase physical activity and exercise, especially those with early signs of memory loss, or those at a higher risk.

Similarly, seniors should continue to partake in activities that stimulate their brains, such as taking fun language courses or solving crosswords and other puzzles. Additionally, maintaining social interaction with neighbors, friends and loved ones can help slow down the process of memory loss. Eating a healthy diet can also help, including less cholesterol and fats, and more antioxidants.

Options for families

For seniors suffering from mild to moderate memory loss who live assisted living or memory care communities, a home-like environment is the ideal setting.

This allows for the caregiver to provide the resident with individualized, hands-on care without administering drugs, which is imperative in helping those suffering from memory loss issues or Alzheimer's disease remain social and in a positive mood. Some potentially beneficial options include a towel bath, aromatherapy, music and pet therapy, exercise training, and message and touch therapy.

The structured routine of a home-like environment also helps people with memory loss or Alzheimer's disease to remain independent. This setting allows for social interaction with other residents and enhances visits from family and friends, who feel more comfortable visiting their loved one in a home-like setting as opposed to a "facility," which feels sterile or institutional. It also provides their families with the peace of mind that their loved one is being supervised and promptly taken care of if in need.

Many of us are affected by the difficult issues that memory loss and Alzheimer's disease present, but if you are armed with the right attitude and the right knowledge, you can help a loved one continue to live a positive, fulfilling life.

Dr. Rahul Gupta is the memory care medical director at The Watermark at 3030 Park on the Fairfield line.

The Watermark at 3030 Park will host a Lunch & Learn program, "An Inside Look at Alzheimer's disease and Memory Care for Seniors," on Tuesday, April 20, from noon to 2 p.m. at the senior living community located on the Bridgeport/Fairfield line. The program is free of charge and open to the public. Gupta will be the guest speaker for the program and will be available to answer any memory loss or memory care questions guests have. R.S.V.P. by April 18 by calling 203-374-5611.