It is the most common mind diminishing disease and approximately the seventh leading cause of death among individuals over the age of 60. But it is the least likely to be talked about or taken seriously, until it strikes one’s family—it’s Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Jeffrey Harris, of Harris Neurological Associates and an Alzheimer’s disease specialist in Alabama, says that Alzheimer’s is a progressive memory disorder that starts with the loss of short-term memory and progresses into long-term loss. One loses the ability to do any activity associated with daily living, for instance feeding themselves, grooming themselves or going places without assistance.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association website, there are approximately 5.3 million reported cases in the United States and every 70 seconds someone develops the disease.
“Early detection can be the key,” says Dr. Judith Black, medical director of Senior Markets for Highmark. “If a loved one is showing signs of memory loss, do not assume it is just normal aging. Make an appointment with your loved one’s physician and go with them. Discuss with the physician what you are observing.” Black and others say that this is the most common mistake when dealing with the disease—waiting. She also adds that the disease is steadily increasing as the leading cause of death for older people, especially as people are living longer.
Harris says that the average age for developing the disease is 60. At that time an individual has a 20 percent chance of developing the disease, and they increase 10 percent every 10 years after. So when someone is 70 years old, their chances increase by 30 percent and at 40 percent by the age of 80.
Some of the signs to look for are memory loss of recently learned information or dates, confusion with time or place, difficulty completing daily tasks, misplacing things and not being able to retrace one’s steps, changes in mood or personality and the growing frustration and withdrawal from activities that they once loved to do.
Although there is no cure for the disease, there are several medications and activities that one can do to prolong memory. The most common medications are Aricept, Exelon, Razadyne and the newest, Memantine. The first three are cholinesterase inhibitors that slow the progression of the disease and the latter protects the brain.
“So essentially, an individual would take two medications (one of the three and Memantine),” Dr. Oscar Lopez, a professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh. He adds that keeping up with health, such as blood pressure and diabetes are important because they can deal with circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain.
Physicians also agree that the use of brain stimulating things help strengthen the brain. Reading and puzzles such as word searches, crosswords, Sudoku and jigsaws are good ways to challenge the brain and keep it active.
All of the physicians spoken to agree that individuals do not die from Alzheimer’s, they die from complications from the disease.
“People in the end stages of the disease are very prone to infections,” said Lopez. “Often it is because a person with Alzheimer’s cannot communicate to their caregiver symptoms they are experiencing.” For instance, a person with Alzheimer’s could be having a stroke or heart attack or even an infection, and because they could not communicate those symptoms with their caregiver, by the time the issue is recognized it can be too late.
Although it is unknown what causes the disease, research is constant. Harris says that research is being done to develop new medications to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s and even a vaccine is in the works.
But that is not enough. Lopez says that out of the 31,000 individuals that volunteer for research, African-Americans only make up 11 percent of that number and Hispanics make up 4 percent.
“There is very little known about the effects of Alzheimer’s in minorities. We need more participation from minorities, whether it is participating in a drug trial or an observation study,” Lopez said.
No matter what the issue, each physician stresses do not wait. At the first sign of anything go to a doctor. The sooner the visit, the more likely the chances of survival.