In 2019, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. By the year 2050, it’s estimated that number may be as high as 14 million, and anyone with a brain is at potential risk.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and is a disease that is often misunderstood. The month of June has been designated as Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, encouraging Americans to ‘‘Go Purple’’ for better awareness and an eventual cure for this deadly disease.

Each year, Alzheimer’s kills more people than breast and prostate cancer combined. A person can live with the disease anywhere from a few years to a few decades, but the average patient lives with Alzheimer’s for about nine years. Approximately one in 10 U.S. adults over the age of 65 has the disease, and women are more likely than men to be affected. There is currently no cure.

Researchers do know that the symptoms caused by Alzheimer’s appear to come from two types of nerve damage. The first type is called neurofibrillary tangles, or a tangling of the brain’s nerve cells. The second type is called beta-amyloid plaque, or the build-up of protein deposits in the brain. Regardless of the type of nerve damage, it’s almost certain that genetics play a role — if your parent had Alzheimer’s disease, you are at significantly higher risk.

There are some steps that you can take to delay or avoid dementia from any cause, agreed on by virtually all medical experts.

1. Hit the books. Formalized learning at any stage of life helps reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia of all types. Take a class at a local college or online. If you can’t engage in formal learning, take up crossword puzzles, Sudoku or participate in a book group.

2. Stop smoking. The evidence is clear. Among other things, smoking increases the risk of cognitive decline.

3. Listen to your heart. Obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes — are deemed to be driving the increases in Alzheimer’s. Research shows an even clearer line between Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Get your blood sugars in line and protect your heart, to protect your brain.

4. Helmets on. Research shows a clear line between the incidence of brain injury and the eventual onset of dementia. Exercise and movement are critical to brain and body health. Roller skating? Great! But wear a helmet, and take general steps daily to protect your head.

5. Choose high-grade fuels. Eat a healthy diet full of quality fruits, vegetables and healthy fats to ensure your brain gets what it needs.

6. Get quality ZZZZ’s. Regularly failing to get seven to eight hours of good sleep, or suffering from insomnia or sleep apnea, is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s.

7. Protect your mental health. There are some indications that a history of depression or anxiety can lead to early cognitive decline. Take steps to manage stress, and work with a qualified physician to address any mental health concerns.

8. Be a butterfly. A social butterfly, that is. Staying socially engaged and happy is an indicator of both longevity and brain health. Volunteer, get a pet, or join a group like Senior Circle at Woodland Heights to keep you active and meeting new people. For more information on this group, call 637-8687.

The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information, because the disease’s changes typically begin in the part of the brain that affects learning. As the condition progresses, the patient may experience disorientation, mood and behavior changes, difficulty speaking, and even suspicion of family and friends. Early diagnosis and intervention methods are improving regularly and rapidly, so it’s important to involve your physician as soon as possible when a loved one displays symptoms

On a more personal note, this will be the last article I have the pleasure of submitting as the CEO at Woodland Heights — after four wonderful years in Lufkin, my family and I are relocating.

I would like to take this moment to say thank you to the Lufkin community for embracing us — Angelina County is an amazing place and will always hold a special spot in our hearts. To the board of trustees, staff, volunteers and medical staff at Woodland Heights, thank you for all you do to take care of Deep East Texas. It has been a privilege to work alongside some of the most caring, dedicated and talented individuals you will ever meet. Thank you for allowing me to do that.

Kyle Swift is the CEO at Woodland Heights Medical Center. He can be reached at kyle.swift@woodlandheights.net.