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On the move against Alzheimer’s disease
By Robert P. Dean
As the number of Americans age 65 and older continues to grow – the first of the Baby Boomers will turn 65 in 2011 and the last by 2029 - so too will the number of Americans afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. According to a 2010 report entitled, “2010 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures," published by the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of people age 65 or older with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to reach 7.7 million in 2030 - a more than 50% increase from the 5.1 million age 65 or older currently afflicted.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive degenerative disorder that results in the loss of brain cells and begins with memory loss – particularly of new information. As the disease progresses, it causes confusion, impaired judgment, disorganized thinking, disorientation, and an inability to express one’s thoughts. Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of the aging process, it is a disease. There is no cure and it is ultimately fatal. Alzheimer’s is the fifth leading cause of death for Americans age 65 and older. Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia – a gradual and progressive decline in memory, thinking, and reasoning skills – and accounts for approximately 60 to 80% of all dementia cases. Other forms of dementia include Vascular, Lewy bodies, and Frontotemporal (Pick’s disease). Individuals who have Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease may also develop dementia. Certain conditions such as depression, brain tumors, infections, drug reactions, and thyroid problems can also produce dementia-like symptoms.
Some of the warning signs for Alzheimer’s include difficulty performing familiar tasks, changes in mood or personality, forgetting recently learned information, misplacing things in inappropriate places, poor or decreased judgment, and disorientation to time and place.
The cause of Alzheimer’s remains unknown and is likely the result of multiple factors with the single greatest risk factor being advancing age. Most Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are age 65 or older, although individuals younger than 65 can also develop the disease.
The 2010 report states that 5.1 million of the 5.3 million Americans estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease are age 65 or older. One in eight Americans (or 13%) age 65 and over suffers from Alzheimer’s. Someone in America develops Alzheimer’s disease every 70 seconds. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease face an uncertain future in which roles - including those of provider, caregiver, and advisor - may be reversed, and in which independence and identity may be lost. The average life expectancy of someone with Alzheimer’s is between eight and 10 years, although some people live considerably longer. Many of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s or a related disorder are undiagnosed.
Approximately 11 million Americans provide 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care for persons with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia according to the 2010 report. Although these unpaid caregivers are primarily family members, they may also include friends and neighbors. Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s presents special challenges. As the disease progresses, individuals require increased levels of care, supervision, and provision for their safety. In advanced Alzheimer’s, individuals need assistance with bathing, dressing, using the bathroom, eating, and other daily activities. Those in the final stages of the disease lose their ability to communicate, fail to recognize loved ones, and become bed-bound. Because the disease progresses slowly, caregivers tend to spend a long time in the caregiver role.
Over the last several years, there has been a significant increase in the medical research of Alzheimer’s disease, and in the search for a cure. Although no treatment is yet available to slow or stop the deterioration of brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease, the 2010 report states that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved five drugs that temporarily slow the worsening of symptoms for about six to twelve months on average for approximately half of the individuals who take them. Approximately 90 experimental therapies designed to slow or stop the progression of the disease are in clinical testing in human volunteers. One report recently published in the "Archives of Neurology Journal" indicates that a simple analysis of an individual’s cerebrospinal fluid may allow doctors to reliably predict that individual’s chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It is hoped that such a test could help lead to the development of treatments to slow the progress of the disease, and to earlier treatment of those with Alzheimer’s before significant brain cell loss has occurred. Other studies have shown that active medical management of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, including appropriate use of available treatment options and utilization of supportive services, can significantly improve the quality of life through all stages of the disease for the diagnosed and their caregivers. According to the 2010 report, a growing body of evidence suggests that the health of the brain is closely linked to the overall health of the heart and blood vessels, and that management of cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and overweight, may help avoid or delay cognitive decline. Evidence also points to the importance of regular physical exercise to maintain lifelong cognitive health.
Each year the Alzheimer’s Association sponsors a nationwide Memory Walk to raise awareness of and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support, and research. Here in Berkshire County, approximately 400 people will participate in this year’s walk along the Ashuwillticook Trail in Cheshire on Saturday September 25 at 9 a.m. - registration will begin at 8 a.m. at the kick-off site on Farnhams Road causeway. Please join us if you can. If you would like more information about Alzheimer’s, dementia, caregiver supports, or this year’s Memory Walk, please contact the Massachusetts Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association at 499-0691 or www.alz.org/manh, call Elder Services at 499-0524 or 1-800-544-5242, or visit the Richard and Rita Gallagher Alzheimer’s Resource Center at Elder Services on 66 Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield.
Robert P. Dean is Executive Director of Elder Services and Honorary Chair of this year’s Berkshire County Memory Walk.