“The most expensive disease in America is devouring federal and state health care budgets and depleting the life savings of millions of victims and their families. But the greatest cost of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is not financial, but personal. This cruel ailment steals our memories, steals our independence and finally steals our dignity by eroding the ability to manage the basic tasks of daily life…
“Generally the disease begins near the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center and then spreads to areas of the brain that control language, judgment and physical activity. The disease was named for a German physician, Alois Alzheimer, who presented a case study in 1906 of a female patient exhibiting loss of memory and other cognitive issues.
“An autopsy of her brain showed the buildup of proteins that are known to be hallmarks of the diseases. These proteins form clumps known as ‘plaques,’ which appear to contribute to neuron death and ‘tangles’ of protein fiber that disrupt the neuron’s transit system. Eventually communication between neurons breaks down…
“There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and no treatment that appears to stop its spread in the brain… Experts emphasize that the severe decline in mental capacity caused by Alzheimer’s is not a normal signal of aging. The minor problems that people describe as ‘senior moments’ –you can’t find your keys one morning, or you can’t pull up the name of the group that sang ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ –are common and not indicative of any disease. Signs of a clinical state of dementia, in contrast, are much more serious: you can never remember where you put your keys, or you have trouble remembering just about anybody’s name…
“When Harry Johns, the president of the Alzheimer’s Association, appeared recently on a C-SPAN interview program, caller after caller asked him whether this drug or that supplement might be the miracle cure they’re hoping for. A somber Johns had to give the same disappointing answer each time: ‘We have not yet found any substance that deals with the basic causes of the disease.’
“That makes the need for a massive government effort to fund research critical, experts say… If there were sufficient funding for Alzheimer’s research, there are several promising areas of study that could bear fruit…
“Some approaches to Alzheimer’s prevention bandied about in the press don’t seem to work in practice. It’s often said, for example, that older people who do daily crossword puzzles or take up a new language will exercise their brains and thus stave off dementia. Sadly, the research doesn’t bear this out. ‘Some studies suggest that if you have spoken two languages all your life, you might be at reduced risk for dementia… But there isn’t much evidence that you get reduced risk if you start after retirement.’
“Some studies show that physical exercise may prevent dementia in old age because it seems to increase development of new neurons in the brain. Since physical exercise also has significant benefits for cardiovascular health and weight control, getting up and about on a daily basis might be called a no-brainer both for physical and mental health purposes.
“The fact remains, though, that we are a long way from finding either a prevention or cure for the nation’s most expensive disease. Finding a solution is almost certainly going to require significant sums of federal research funding. Getting that additional funding, in turn, is going to require greater efforts to make Alzheimer’s one of the diseases that enjoy political favor and thus the support of politicians…”
These excerpts were taken from Where’s the War on Alzheimer’s by T.R. Reid
T.R. Reid’s recent book, The Healing of America and his PBS Frontline documentary, “Sick around the World,” studied health care systems in industrialized democracies.
Two Highly-Rated Foundations according to Charity Navigator:
Alzheimer's Foundation of America, 322 Eighth Avenue, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10001 (866) 232-8484
Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation, 110 East 42nd Street, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10017 (800) 259-4636