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No cure for fatal disease

Beaver County Times - 10/9/2019

Oct. 9--BEAVER -- She sat in the front row with notebook and pen jotting information to help her better understand dementia, a disease afflicting her husband.

Another woman wanted to learn more about programs to assist caregivers. Her mother-in-law was diagnosed with early onset dementia.

A man whose wife has the condition is concerned she sleeps too much and wondered if this was normal.

Most of the approximately 50 people attending "Understanding Alzheimer's and Dementia," an educational presentation by Penn State Extension Monday afternoon at Beaver Area Memorial Library, have a personal connection to or know someone with dementia.

Today, 5.8 million Americans live with the disease, a number that's projected to reach nearly 14 million by 2050, said Ann Andrews, a Master Health and Wellness volunteer with Penn State Extension. She and Mary Alice Gettings, extension educator, shared information based on research by the Alzheimer's Association.

Often, dementia and Alzheimer's are used interchangeably and while related, there are distinct differences.

Dementia is an umbrella term for changes in memory, thinking or reasoning serious enough to interfere with daily life, Andrews said, and Alzheimer's is the most common cause accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases.

"Alzheimer's is more than memory loss. It is a progressive and fatal disease that kills nerve cells and tissues in the brain affecting an individual's ability to remember, think, plan and function," she said.

Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first identified the disease more than a century ago, noticed changes in the brain on postmortem examinations -- primarily reduced mass and clumps of protein plaques and tangles that disrupt communication in nerve cells or neurons that transmit messages to create memories, thoughts and feelings.

Researchers aren't sure why this happens, but have identified risk factors.

While Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging, Andrews said age is the greatest risk factor. After 65, an individual's risk doubles every five years.

Family history plays a role, too. Those with a parent or sibling with Alzheimer's are more likely to develop it. And genes -- risk and deterministic -- factor also. While risk genes increase likelihood, they're not a guarantee, but deterministic genes that are inherited will cause a disease.

Andrews said certain ethnic groups are more likely to develop Alzheimer's and other dementia: Hispanics are one-and-a-half times more likely than whites, and African Americans are twice as likely. Plus, almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer's are women.

No two individuals experience symptoms and progression of Alzheimer's disease the same way, Andrews said.

Once diagnosed, a person lives an average of four to eight years, but some people can live as long as 20, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Researchers pinpoint three stages: early, middle and late -- sometimes referred to as mild, moderate and severe.

In early stages, most people can live independently, but they and those close to them start recognizing changes. Forgetting words and names. Challenges performing familiar tasks. Getting lost in familiar places. Trouble planning or organizing.

Middle-stage Alzheimer's, typically the longest, requires more care and people are confused, forgetting events or personal history. Personality and behavior changes -- suspicion, delusions, compulsion. Often frustrated, angry or withdrawn, they need help with basic things like choosing clothing. Many have changes in sleep patterns. Some wander off and get lost.

By the late stage, personality changes are significant. Now, help with daily living and personal care is required. A person may lose the ability to walk, sit, swallow, communicate or recognize loved ones and surroundings. They're also more vulnerable to infections, particularly pneumonia.

Understandably, people -- especially those with a family history or genetic predisposition -- are fearful of the disease, which currently has no cure and is fatal.

"My mother had Alzheimer's and I was very concerned," said one woman attending the lecture, enough to undergo testing by a neuropsychologist. "Luckily, I was fine," she said.

The Food and Drug Administration approved drugs to treat symptoms, but Andrews said there are no drugs to prevent, cure or slow progression of the disease.

However, the Alzheimer's Association encourages "10 Ways to Love Your Brain," lifestyle changes and healthy choices to reduce risk of cognitive decline and improve overall health. Things like regular exercise to increase blood flow to the brain; take a class; quit smoking; eat a diet lower in fat and higher in fruits and vegetables; get enough sleep; manage stress; challenge your mind; stay socially engaged; wear seat belts and use a helmet when riding a bike; know the risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Alzheimer's affects not only the person diagnosed, but family and friends who often provide unpaid care -- approximately 16.2 million Americans, Andrews said. That's 18.5 billion hours of care annually valued at roughly $232 billion.

More than half of employed caregivers say they report late for work, have to take time off, or quit jobs because of care-giving demands, she said.

Gettings said there are resources and agencies to support caregivers and encouraged them to seek help.

She suggested contacting the Alzheimer's Association at or by phoning 800-272-3900 or Beaver County Office on Aging at 724-847-2262.

Some care-assistance programs are funded, while others are based on financial income, one woman in the audience said.

"Definitely make the calls," Getting said. "Don't try to do it all yourself. I strongly suggest caregivers go to caregiver support groups. It gives you a break. It makes you realize you're not alone."


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