Experts on Alzheimer’s
It’s estimated that one in every eight senior citizens in the U.S. has Alzheimer’s disease. What’s being done to research, treat and perhaps one day prevent this devastating illness? We interviewed local experts to find out.
Tucson native Bonnie Clayton-Loewy recalls a poignant moment while helping her dad, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010, get ready for a doctor’s appointment. As she was tying the laces on his sneakers, memories flooded back of when she was a child and her dad was teaching her how to tie her shoes. She remembered her father’s patience as he made the loops and taught her how to tie them together. Now it was her time to return the favor.
More than 100 years ago, people with signs of dementia were mistakenly told they had “Old-Timer’s Disease,” a catch-all diagnosis for people with diminishing faculties. In 1907, Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, identified the first published case of “pre-senile dementia,” which would later be known as Alzheimer’s disease. Today, Alzheimer’s disease—the most common type of dementia—is the sixthleading cause of death across all ages in the United States.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include significant impairment in memory, cognitive function, and activities of daily living. As of 2011, it is estimated that Alzheimer’s disease afflicts 5.4 million Americans over age 65. That translates to one in every eight seniors. The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease increases with age. Today, nearly one half of adults over the age of 85 have symptoms of the disorder. The proportion of the population with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to increase in the coming years as more baby boomers turn 65.
A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is most commonly made by an individual’s primary care physician who generally refers the patient to a neurologist. There is no treatment available to slow down or stop the deterioration of brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved five drugs that temporarily slows the worsening of symptoms.
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic. “The good news is that the future of Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and care looks very promising,” says Geoffrey Ahern, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Neuroscience and Alzheimer’s Clinic at University Medical Center. “Researchers around the world are studying numerous testing and treatment strategies that may have the potential to change the course of the disease,” he says.
The news that a family member has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia can be devastating. Suddenly, the physical, emotional, legal and financial welfare of a loved one becomes the responsibility of his or her family members.
In Tucson and Southern Arizona, families faced with this diagnosis have numerous resources they can turn to.
Debra Anderson, programs manager for the non-profit Alzheimer’s Association, Desert Southwest Chapter, suggests family members immediately seek out a support group. “Family members can feel isolated, alone and totally consumed with taking care of their loved one,” she says. “It’s important to find a support group where caregivers have the opportunity to share information, advice and experiences with other caregivers.”
The Alzheimer’s Association Desert Southwest Chapter offers a 24/7 helpline and information and referral service where callers can receive confidential, personal telephone support with a trained specialist. The chapter also provides family care consultations, support groups and education programs.
And for Alzheimer’s patients at risk, Anderson encourages family members enroll in a “safe return” program, a nationwide identification and education program that reduces the risks associated with Alzheimer’s patients wandering and getting lost. The program provides peace of mind as well as valuable information on home safety and wandering prevention.
The Pima Council on Aging (PCOA), which has been serving older adults and their families since 1967, is an excellent resource for a wide variety of programs, services and benefits, including caregiver services designed for family caregivers who are assisting ailing loved ones with dementia.
“There are a number of top-notch assisted living facilities offering ‘memory care’ in Tucson,” relates Suzy Bourque, a caregiver specialist from PCOA. “Our PCOA caregiver specialists are professionals who can help family members with many issues, including how to find a facility that’s a good fit for the patient as they move through the various stages of the disease.”
A worldwide quest is underway to find new treatments to stop, slow or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Because new drugs take years to produce from concept to market—and because drugs that seem promising in early-stage studies may not work as hoped in large-scale trials—it is even more important today to stay healthy, active and connected with family and friends.
Tucson and Southern Arizona have numerous resources for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as for family members and caregivers.
Alzheimer’s Association, Southern Arizona Region
Desert Southwest Chapter
3003 S. Country Club Road, Suite 209
Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation
Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D.
6300 E. El Dorado Plaza, Suite 400
Pima Council on Aging
8467 E. Broadway
Shine Your Light Tucson
Bonnie Clayton-Loewy, M.Ed.
Tucson Medical Center
Alzheimer’s & Related Dementias Program
TMC Senior Services at El Dorado Health Campus
1400 N. Wilmot Road
University Medical Center
Behavioral Neuroscience and Alzheimer’s Clinic
1501 N. Campbell Ave.
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