Why More People Have Neurodegenerative Diseases Than Ever
As people live longer, neurological diseases are becoming more common. About one billion people worldwide are affected by neurologic disorders, according to the World Health Organization. As a result, these diseases have been the focus of increasing and intense medical research over the past few decades.
Neurodegenerative diseases occur when the cells of the central nervous system stop functioning or die. These diseases worsen with time, and—as of now—they do not have cures. Researchers are studying ways to reduce the risk for neurodegenerative diseases or, one day, to slow their progression.
Risk Factors for Neurodegenerative Disease
The top risk for neurodegenerative disease is age. For example, symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease typically start after 60 years of age, according to the CDC, and the risk to develop symptoms accelerates with time. People who are 85 years old have a nearly 50% risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Other risks of neurodegenerative disease include:
- Genetics: About a tenth of neurodegenerative diseases have a genetic factor.
- Viral infection: An increased risk can result from viral infections, including measles, meningitis, polio, and chickenpox.
- Head trauma: Repeated head trauma or a traumatic brain injury can increase the risk for neurological diseases.
- Chemical exposure: Pollutants in the environment can create an increased risk for disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
To reduce the risk for neurogenerative diseases, doctors recommend lifestyle changes that improve vascular health. Staying active physically, for instance, is vital to promoting blood flow to the brain and body. In fact, a December 2021 article in Nature notes, “physical activity evokes profound physiological responses in multiple tissues across the animal kingdom and is accepted to broadly improve human health. The benefits of exercise extend to patients with neurodegeneration and brain trauma, possibly by reducing neuroinflammation. Long-term voluntary exercise in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and related disorders improve learning and memory, and decrease neuroinflammation.”
In addition, good sleep hygiene, a well-balanced diet, and stress management can also support vascular health.
Alzheimer’s disease affects the part of the brain that controls memory, language, and thought. It’s the most common neurodegenerative disease worldwide, affecting over 50 million people, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Although it’s not rare, Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal stage of aging and shouldn’t be confused with typical, age-related memory lapses. While it’s not unusual for someone to forget a name or an appointment as they get older, it’s not normal for people to have memory problems that interfere with daily tasks or to ask the same question again and again. People with Alzheimer’s disease may not remember how they arrived at a place or be unable to follow a conversation. Alzheimer’s disease will gradually worsen with time, but the timeline of each person’s progression will be different.
Worldwide, over 10 million people are living with Parkinson’s disease according to the Parkinson Foundation, making it the second most common neurodegenerative disease globally.
Parkinson’s disease creates two types of symptoms. There are motor symptoms, which affect movement. This may include tremors, difficulty walking, drooling, or rigidity. There are also non-motor symptoms, which include anxiety, sleep disorders, depression, and cognitive decline. Typically, people with Parkinson’s disease experience non-motor symptoms first, then develop motor symptoms after the disease has progressed. Parkinson’s disease looks different for everyone, and the symptoms that appear and how they progress are largely individual.
Defined as any condition that results in damage to the myelin sheath, a protective covering surrounding the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, Demyelinating Disorders often result in muscle weakness, vision loss, muscle spasms and other neurological problems.
The most common and well known of this type of disorder is Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease where the immune system attacks the myelin sheath of the brain and/or spine causing damage to the central nervous system. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, over 2.8 million people worldwide are living with MS. While there is no definitively recognized cause of the disease nor known ways to prevent it, ongoing research and the development of new treatments and therapies are helping people who are afflicted by minimizing the impact of MS on their daily lives.
Living Better with Neurodegenerative Disease
For people who already have a neurodegenerative disease, doctors may be able to offer ways to reduce the symptoms of the disease to improve quality of life. These may include memory aids, daily routines, and medications. Researchers are finding more medications to help control behavioral and cognitive symptoms.
Living with neurological diseases—or caring for someone who has one—can be stressful and overwhelming. Associations can support patients and their caregivers with tools and resources to help their physical, mental, and emotional health.