Shedding light on the most mysterious of diseases

March 29, 2014

Alzheimer’s is a disease that robs individuals of their lives bit by bit, piece by piece.

The fundamental components of who they are as a human being begin to erode. The skills that they mastered start to decline, along with their ability to carry out simple, everyday tasks. First, it’s subtle. Then it becomes too obvious and too disturbing to ignore. An uncomplicated drive across town that had once been second-nature becomes a puzzling ordeal. The names of old friends slip away.

There are embarrassing mishaps, like announcing you’re going to go outside and rake the leaves, then walking into a closet instead.

Memories are erased. And not small ones, like the year you bought a car or when your favorite team last won a World Series. It is said that, a few years after he revealed he had Alzheimer’s, former President Ronald Reagan reached into a fish tank to grab a small ceramic model of a White House that was at the bottom. He showed it to his wife, Nancy, and said he couldn’t recall its significance, “but I think it has something to do with me.”

Unlike heart disease and cancer, which also afflict millions of older Americans, there is no hope of “beating” Alzheimer’s. There are drugs to help slow the remorseless march of the disease, but nothing as yet to stop it. Once a diagnosis comes, it marks the beginning of a slow, relentless, irreversible decline.

Starting today, the Observer-Reporter is launching an ongoing series, “No Longer Me,” that will look at the devastating impact Alzheimer’s disease and dementia have, both on those who are afflicted and family members and friends who are left to care for them. In today’s edition, we try to define Alzheimer’s and dementia and look at how they were treated in the days when memory loss was brushed off as “hardening of the arteries.” We also look at local people who are trying to come to terms with their fading memories.

Given this region’s older demographics, it’s poised to become an even more serious problem around here. And it’s also set to be a first-rank public health concern, given the hordes of baby boomers who are reaching their golden years every day. To an extent, the increasing numbers of people being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is a mark of wider progress on the health front – by and large, we’re now living long enough to get that diagnosis. No longer are people typically dying in their 50s or 60s from strokes or heart attacks, communicable diseases or any of the other maladies that drove up mortality rates in past decades. It’s estimated, though, that by 2050, as many as 16 million of those born late in the baby boom or within Generation X will have Alzheimer’s disease, representing a threefold increase from today’s numbers.

A recent study also pegged Alzheimer’s as the third leading cause of death in the United States today, just behind cancer and heart disease.

Researchers at Rush University in Chicago found that the number of people dying from Alzheimer’s has likely been underreported because doctors will often put an immediate cause of death on a death certificate, such as pneumonia, and not list Alzheimer’s as the condition that led someone’s health to deteriorate.

Television personality and former California first lady Maria Shriver has said that Alzheimer’s creates a feeling of helplessness: “The parent can’t work, can’t live alone and is totally dependent, like a toddler. As the disease unfolds, you don’t know what to expect.”

Through this series, we hope to shed some light on this most mysterious of diseases.



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