Researchers say changes in the brain that cause loss of balance may also indicate Alzheimer’s progression.

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Experts say not all hip fractures mean a patient is developing Alzheimer’s, but doctors should monitor hip surgery patients for signs of dementia. Getty Images

Alzheimer’s disease is notoriously hard to detect early, yet changes in the brain may begin years before symptoms show.

In fact, researchers involved in a recent study concluded that most seniors hospitalized for a hip fracture carry signs of developing this memory-robbing disease.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore examined spinal fluid in 168 patients hospitalized to repair hip fractures. The patients ranged in age from 65 to 102 and almost 80 percent were women.

Spinal fluid was collected before hip surgery and participants also completed two routine tests used to determine mental state, memory, and thinking ability. The tests were the Mini-Mental State Exam and the Informant Questionnaire on Cognitive Decline in the Elderly.

Only four of the patients showed signs of moderate dementia while 81 patients demonstrated mild cognitive impairment. Another 70 showed no cognitive problems at all. These are the patients the researchers focused on.

When they checked biomarkers for Alzheimer’s in the group with no cognitive decline, they found 62 of the 70 patients had abnormal levels of at least one indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers say this may mean the brain changes that cause poor balance in seniors not only increase the risk of hip-breaking falls but also of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Esther Oh, an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and lead study author, cautioned in a statement that her study doesn’t mean that every senior who fractures a hip has Alzheimer’s.

She emphasized the results do suggest that anyone facing hip repair surgery after a fall should be monitored closely for cognitive issues such as postoperative delirium and other related problems.

Postoperative delirium can happen after an older adult has surgery and then develops a mentally confused state.

According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists those symptoms may not start until a few days after surgery. They can also come and go.

The symptoms typically disappear after about a week, but they can become a long-term problem called postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD).

Hip fractures have serious health consequences.

The pain and loss of mobility can also significantly worsen quality of life.

Dr. Adam Rivadeneyra, orthopedic specialist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California, told Healthline “It may take up to a few months to completely recover from a broken hip.”

“Surgical complications can include minor things like pain and scars,” he added, “but may also include very serious problems like blood clots, infection, or even death in some cases. A broken hip is a big problem, especially in patients over 85 years old and if Alzheimer’s is involved.”

Older adults have up to an eight times higher risk of dying within three months of breaking a hip. About one-fourth of adults die within a year after suffering a hip fracture.

While current treatment options won’t prevent, stop, or cure Alzheimer’s disease, getting diagnosed early will still help.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early diagnosis will help you make important lifestyle changes that could improve your symptoms. Lowering blood pressure, quitting smoking, exercising, and staying mentally and socially active may help prolong your mental abilities.

You’ll also have a better chance of benefiting from available treatments. There are drugs that can improve your symptoms, although they’re only effective for a limited time to treat memory loss and confusion.

Early diagnosis may even make you eligible for a broader range of clinical trials that could offer significant health benefits while advancing important research.

Crucially, the sooner you know what you’re up against, the more time you’ll have to prepare, reducing the burden on family members.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the single largest cause of death and injuries in older Americans is falls.

About one-quarter of all seniors fall at least once per year, resulting in millions of emergency room visits.

“To prevent falls, staying active is very important,” Rivadeneyra said. “Walking, taking the stairs, and lifting weights can be very helpful. If needed, consider using hiking poles, a cane, or a walker to help with balance and strength. Physical therapy, tai chi, yoga, and Pilates are all great exercises.”

The National Council for Aging Care offers advice on eliminating falling hazards in the home, they include:

  • Addressing any medical conditions that may make a fall more likely such as untreated problems like vertigo. Joint or vision issues can lead to injury.
  • Reducing hazards in the immediate environment. Front-door showers, carpeting, and widening door frames are the kind of changes that can help.
  • Improving a home’s lighting to reveal tripping dangers.

“Make safe choices when you’re moving around and pay attention to your surroundings,” Rivadeneyra added. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or use an assistive device to help keep you safe.”

Elderly patients with hip fracture and no sign of cognitive decline almost all showed markers for Alzheimer’s disease in a recent study.

The researchers say hip injury from a fall may be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

However, this doesn’t mean that every senior who fractures a hip has Alzheimer’s. But it is a reason for doctors to take a closer look at every senior who is hospitalized for one.

Hip injury prevention includes removing falling hazards from a senior’s environment, working on maintaining physical strength, and when needed, using assisting devices to get around.