Commentary: Alzheimer’s disease: what you can do to prevent holiday memories from vanishing

Forgetting grandchildren’s names at Thanksgiving. Misplacing keys in an odd location at Christmas. Repeating a story for the second time in an hour at New Year’s Eve. We all wonder, “Is Grandpa just getting old or is something wrong with him?”

These noticeable memory lapses may come with old age, but often lead to the fear that grandpa might be getting Alzheimer’s disease, and prevents us from addressing cognitive impairment in its earliest stages.

What many people don’t realize is that more than half of cognitive impairment is caused by treatable conditions such as heart disease, vitamin deficiencies, diabetes, sleep disorders, and depression, and the rest by various neurodegenerative conditions including Alzheimer’s disease. All these conditions benefit from early detection and treatment, which will stop or greatly slow a progressing of cognitive impairment.

Waiting for symptoms to become obvious is like detecting diabetes when an individual is going blind or having kidney failure, or discovering heart disease when a person has a heart attack — way too late. It’s important that we start to keep track of memory health the same way we keep track of other vital functions.

Prevention and early detection of first signs of cognitive impairment and treating its cause is key to maintaining a healthy brain throughout life. This is extremely important because, like heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and breast cancer, we don’t wait until we notice symptoms to begin addressing the underlying cause of disease. We want to be able to detect cognitive impairment and address it at its earliest possible stage.

Over the past seven years, the Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program at the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag has seen a heartening uptick in the number of people in their 50s getting their annual memory checkup, along with a steady increase of participants over 65 years old.

Physicians are also referring their patients to the program who have no symptoms of cognitive impairment, but who want to establish a baseline for their memory.

In addition to an annual memory checkup, there are many things we can do to prevent or slow cognitive impairment. Lifestyle changes are one of the biggest factors. Healthy diet, physical and mental exercise, and certain supplements can provide a positive impact on cognitive health, while smoking, alcohol and chemical dependency, isolation and a sedentary lifestyle have a negative impact.

Managing existing medical conditions is also important. Risk factors for cognitive impairment include but are not limited to diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, depression and heart disease, and keeping these conditions under control can provide a positive impact on cognitive health as well. The body is connected to the brain.

Staying on top of your cognitive health can be easy. In the program, participants receive a brief and accurate memory assessment and information session about cognitive health. The assessment results can be shared with the participant’s physicians with permission or can be sent to the referring physicians.

The program also connects individuals with medical and community resources so that any cognitive health decline or early detection of medical conditions can be addressed. The mission of the group is also to educate the public about maintaining brain health throughout your life with a series of educational seminars offered to the public for free.

Getting an early start with the Vital Brain Aging Program can significantly add happy, healthy years to your life and that of your family. Holiday gatherings should be a time of making memories. Not forgetting them.

For more information: (949) 764-6288 or

WILLIAM R. SHANKLE, M.S., M.D., F.A.C.P., is the Judy & Richard Voltmer Endowed Chair in Memory and Cognitive Disorders at the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag.