Americans worry about Alzheimer's disease, survey finds, but most don't know the early signs and symptoms

A nationwide study reveals that although many Americans say they want to reduce their risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, they’re largely misinformed when it comes to risk factors beyond genetics and age.

According to a MDVIP/Ipsos survey released this week – in time for World’s Alzheimer’s Month – 80% of Americans want to reduce their risk of dementia, but only about 35% say they know the symptoms.

“If you don’t know what the early signs are, that means that you or someone you care about is getting ill in front of you and you don’t know what it is or what to do about it,” says Dr. Jason Karlawish, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Penn Memory Center.

The common early warning signs for dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease, he says, are repetitive questions and stories, troubles with orientation and difficulties with complex, daily tasks.

The survey included a quiz that tested respondents’ knowledge of brain health. About a quarter of those surveyed say they know risk factors, prevention, causes and different types of dementia.

“Alzheimer’s is one of the leading causes of death and declining health in the U.S., yet our data shows that the disease is still widely misunderstood,” says Andrea Klemes, chief medical officer of MDVIP, a membership-based health care network.

About 1,200 people participated in the survey. Andrew Budson, professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and author of the book “Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory,” says the results are consistent with what he sees in practice.

Most people don’t know the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, he says. Dementia is the general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with everyday life, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that can lead to dementia.

Budson says there are multiple ways to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, including physical exercise and diet. He specifically pointed to aerobic exercises and the Mediterranean diet, which includes relatively little red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish and healthy fats, such as nuts and olive oil.

Klemes says another important way to prevent the disease is to take care of one’s emotional health. Research has shown depression is a risk factor for dementia, she says, and people with symptoms of depression tend to suffer a more rapid decline in thinking and memory skills.

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates 5.8 million Americans 65 and older live with the disease, as of 2020. The number is projected to increase to 7.1 million people by 2025. Klemes worries that number may skyrocket as the coronavirus pandemic keeps older people from social activities, which could lead to depression.

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A separate MDVIP/Ipsos study of about 1,000 adults found nearly two-thirds of Americans say the pandemic has had an effect on feelings of depression and anxiety. Experts say it's important people tend to their emotional health and see a doctor if they notice cognitive symptoms in themselves or loved ones.

“We don’t yet know the long-lasting consequences that the pandemic will have on the brain,” Klemes says. “Brain health checks, just like testing for high cholesterol or diabetes, should be a regular part of preventive care, and partnering with a primary care doctor is an important first step.”

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alzheimers: Americans in the dark about dementia symptoms, survey says