Of all the issues of aging, none has been more emotionally or medically challenging than Alzheimer’s disease. And because we are living longer, the incidence of Alzheimer’s is on the rise. More than 1,000 cases are diagnosed each day in the U.S., In Georgia alone, the Alzheimer’s Association counts more than 160,000 cases.
While Alzheimer’s represents one of the most debilitating, frightening by-products of aging, it is also an area of great hope and excitement because significant progress has been made toward prevention and cure.
“Over the past several years, much has been accomplished to bring to reality the vision of a world without Alzheimer’s,” offered Ginny Helms of the Georgia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Most notable of recent developments include the discovery of preventive measures, screening techniques and medications that may prevent — even cure — Alzheimer’s.
“We have evidence that a healthy lifestyle can possibly delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.” Key steps to “Maintain Your Brain,” a slogan now being used by the Association in promoting a healthy lifestyle, include:
- Exercising your body and engaging your brain in intellectually stimulating activities.
- Managing blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and body weight.
- Eating foods high in vitamins E and C and omega-3 fatty acids — fruits and vegetables — and taking a multivitamin that includes folic acid.
Half of the people affected by Alzheimer’s and most of those with early onset (before age 60) are genetically predisposed to the disease. Those individuals might begin the slow process of developing the disease in their 20s and 30s. Heretofore that process has not been diagnosable. However, though they are still controversial and not yet generally available, new brain imaging techniques are being used successfully to identify early states of the disease.
“Genetic screening will become commonplace over the next five or so years. And given our knowledge of the lifestyle changes we can make to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, screening should prove a valuable preventive measure.”
While no definitive cause of Alzheimer’s has been identified, in virtually all cases the brain is surrounded by a type of plaque. New medications under trial may prove to prevent plaque from accumulating around the brain. “These medications could prove to prevent the disease from developing or even provide a cure.”
Being a caregiver to a patient with Alzheimer’s is a daunting challenge. A study of 1,000 adults, a collaboration between the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Alliance of Caregiving, revealed that becoming a caregiver was as frightening a prospect as getting the disease.
“Our report shows that Alzheimer’s caregivers have a disproportionately heavier burden than other caregivers when it comes to the number of hours spent providing care, the duration of time they give care and the difficulty of the tasks they perform, all of which leads to an increase in unmet needs and personal sacrifice.”
While we wait for cures and preventive measures to be approved and available, the Alzheimer’s Association is helping caregivers as well as patients cope with this disease. From offices in key locations across the state, it offers a wide array of programs, including personal counseling, community outreach and support, such as educating professionals on how to handle patient incidents.
“Generally workers in assisted living facilities and nursing homes do a good job with Alzheimer’s patients, but typically they don’t know the best way to handle specific incidents when they happen,” Helms explained.
The Association also provides information and refers patients and their families for financial, legal, and other advisory services through a help line that is staffed round the clock by a specialist: 1-800-272-3900.
“Like other issues of ElderCare, treating Alzheimer’s patients requires a multi-disciplinary approach,” Helms said. “The financial, legal, housing and other issues are unique. They require special expertise and commitment.”
By Ginny Helms
Alzheimer’s Association, Georgia Chapter