Orlando I. Benedict, MD, 32
Grand Blanc, Michigan

Though the condition is incurable, we can take specific steps to combat Alzheimer’s disease.

Americans were appalled when news about President Ronald Reagan’s diagnoses of Alzheimer’s type dementia surfaced. What? How? When? And, most importantly, why? Those were the questions the public asked, yet clear answers are still hard to find today.

A century ago, Alois Alzheimer studied the brains of dead demented patients, and he described the minute changes occurring in the tissue of that most important organ where the personality, memory, and other character traits reside. Little did he know at the time that the disease to be named after him would one day become one of the leading causes of disability and death, specially in the aging population.

What is Alzheimer’s disease? It is the most common of the so-called “senile dementias,” a general and gradual deterioration of the functions of the brain. Notably, the condition affects memory, but also judg- ment, emotional control, and personal hygiene. Alzheimer’s is found in about 5% of Americans over 65 years and in about 50% of those over 85 years. Alzheimer’s dementia ultimately leads to death by the wasting of mind and body. As of today, it remains, unfortunately, incurable.

Scientific research, however, is being conducted by the medical profession in an attempt to tackle this terrible illness and eliminate its causes. This research has provided us with some effec- tive ways to stop the progression of the disease or, at least, to treat its distressing signs for a significant period of time, sometimes months or even years.

Who can have Alzheimer’s dementia? The rule of thumb is: if you suspect your spouse, parent, or loved one is acting persistently “strange,” is “very forgetful” to the point of endangering him- or herself or others, or is losing control of basic things in life such as check writing and the ability to drive safely, or getting lost in previously familiar streets-do not wait, talk to your doctor immediately! It may be Alzheimer’s or, hopefully, something curable. In any case, quick help is needed.

How can anyone get Alzheimer’s dementia? An inherited tendency, it tends to occur more in people who have close blood relatives affected by it. This does not mean that if your mother or father had Alzheimer’s, you are definitively going to suffer from it sooner or later. It simply means that given some circumstances and if you live long enough, you might be at an increased risk for Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s dementia remains a leading cause of death today, perhaps as a consequence of our
longer life expectancy. But you can do something about it.

Some of the circumstances in addition to family history might be, among others, trauma to the head or a deficiency of estrogen hormone in women. Alzheimer’s is not a contagious disease. You cannot get it by living with or by caring for someone who has it.

The second most common cause of dementia in the elderly is a condition known as multiple stroke dementia. It happens more commonly in people with high blood pressure, something we can readily treat in most cases and thus prevent the onset of this permanent condition. You should also ask your doctor about the possibility of depression and of vitamin deficiencies like B12 or folic acid that could imitate Alzheimer’s.

In the case of Alzheimer’s, we can still do many things. First, we can make an early diagnosis. This way the patient and his or her family will be better prepared to confront some future crucial issues before they are ill or tired. Some of those issues might include finding appropriate medical and social assistance, deciding the allocation of financial resources to cover expenses such as nursing care, and locating reliable sources of information such as the Alzheimer’s Association that has chapters in every major city. Talk with your doctor. Recent advances in medical testing can help to recognize or to rule out a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Next we can start medical therapy. Medicines tend to be more effective early on. We can also provide timely support to the caregivers. They are frequently the wife or husband of the victim of Alzheimer’s or the older children of the patient. Even if that patient is not a good candidate to receive the latest medications to arrest the disease, we can give vitamins and anti-inflammatory agents that might help some patients. Also, physicians can prescribe safe tranquilizers proved to alleviate agitation in the patient and thus give the caregivers and the family a little peace and rest during at least part of the day or night.

In summary, Alzheimer’s dementia remains a leading cause of death today, perhaps as a consequence of our longer life expectancy. But you can do something about it:

-Get informed,

-Be examined by your doctor,

-Look for help, and

-Do not panic.

Together, we can all fight this terrible disease, and maybe someday Alzheimer’s dementia will be just a sad memory along with all the other terrible but now curable or preventable diseases that have afflicted mankind.

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