Kristen Cusato, Southwest Regional Director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, told Y’s Men of Westport Weston Thursday assured me I’m not – unless I do it frequently – in her talk “A World Without Alzheimer’s.”
It’s not unusual for seniors to occasionally forget where they put their phone, forget a face or a name, or make an error balancing their checkbook. It’s a part of aging. But, Cusato said, when a person loses things, gets confused about time or place, has a tough time finishing daily tasks, has problems in conversation, or when they start withdrawing from regular activities to the extent that these changes change their daily lives, they may well have Alzheimer’s
The Alzheimer’s Association website calls the disease a “type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.” It adds that it is a “general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life.”
It is the most common form of dementia – 70 percent of dementia diagnoses are Alzheimer’s. One in eight people over 65 has been diagnosed with it, as have 50 percent of those over 85. 70,000 people in Connecticut have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And many others “who are not socially involved” may well also display its symptoms.
Unfortunately, Cusato said, while cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDs receive in the “billions of dollars for research annually,” Alzheimer’s and Dementia receive “only” some $500 million.
“There is no magic bullet, and nothing stops it once it starts.” Doctors know its symptoms, but not its causes; they can retard its progression, but neither reverse nor cure it. And they “don’t know it’s Alzheimer’s until an autopsy is performed.”
Researchers have identified traits and behaviors that appear to enhance a person’s likelihood of falling victim to it. A gene – APOE4 – is often co-incident, though it has not been shown to be determinative. If Alzheimer’s is in your family, if you are diabetic, if you are a late life alcoholic, your probability rises. But none of these, either, is determinative.
And there is no prevention program, “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” She recommended walking, playing word games, continuing to go to meetings and eating healthily.
A former TV news anchor, Cusato’s interest is personal. Her mother’s mother died of it, and her mother, too, only six weeks ago. She works with people in this part of the state to train healthcare professionals and family members to help those suffering from the disease, educate the general public, and raise money for research.
The healthy brain, she said, weighs three pounds. One with dementia weighs half that and looks like a “sponge with no water.”
What does dementia do? We drink water by grasping a cup, raising it to our lips, taking the drink… A person with Alzheimer’s forgets a step. She said her mother, a coffee drinker all her life, one day said she wanted tea. Cusato asked and learned that her mother couldn’t remember all of what she called a “32 step process” to make coffee.
Our brain’s neurons, or nerve cells enable our actions. The brain has 100 billion neurons, grouped into networks, each controlling a separate task or function. As we age, proteins called plaques squeeze their way into our neural networks, inhibit the systematic and sequential firing of neurons and so whittle away at our abilities.
In dementia sufferers, plaque blocks an increasing number of neural connections, takes away the ability to complete once common actions, kills great numbers of brain cells, and so changes our capabilities and our daily lives.
Learning and memory, thinking and planning, speaking and understanding speech, and a sense of relationship of the body to what’s around it are all abilities reduced by Alzheimer’s.
While the medical causes of dementia are not yet clear, behavioral factors are. Cusato reviewed the disease’s ten common symptoms: “Memory loss that disrupts daily life” – forgetting names of people one knows; challenges in planning or solving problems – the precise checkbook balancer loses that ability; difficulty completing familiar tasks – forgetting how to make coffee or set a microwave.
Another group is confusion with time or place – going to a store and forgetting the way home; trouble understanding visual cues and spatial relationships – trouble judging distances, making driving unsafe; problems maintaining a conversation – stopping in the middle of a sentence and not being able to continue; misplacing objects and not being able to retrace – forgetting where a cell phone was left.
And still other symptoms are making poor judgments – getting scammed by telemarketers; withdrawing from people, groups and activities they once enjoyed – trouble keeping up with an activity or a favorite team; and changes in mood or personality – getting upset when they get out of their (shrinking) comfort zone.
Part of Alzheimer’s is that the “world gets smaller as the brain shrinks.” Cusato said caregivers “have to get into the (Alzheimer’s sufferers) reality, don’t argue, adapt to their situation.”
When a loved one’s symptoms begin to change their daily life, “visiting a neurologist” is in order. Likewise, gather a team of caregivers. At some point looking into assisted living, obtaining power of attorney, even deciding if DNR become appropriate.
Cusato gave each man present a pen showing the phone number of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Helpline: 800-272-3900. The line is available “24/7 and serves people with memory loss, caregivers, health care professionals and the public.”
She closed by asking those interested in becoming caregivers or supporting the fight to eliminate the disease to visit the Alzheimer Association’s website: http://www.alz.org/ct.
Photo by Bill Balch