I have just learned that World Alzheimer’s Day is September 21st. There are more than 5 million people in the United States living with Alzheimer’s and every 72 seconds, someone else is diagnosed with this terrible disease that robs the individual of his memories, his abilities, his emotions, and eventually, his life.
In the old days, dementia was just considered as getting older, or “senile,” but Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia are not the same. Every person “forgets” where they put their keys from time to time, or what their next appointment is, or what they had for lunch yesterday. Alzheimer’s-type dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life, is different. It’s a brain disorder, named for German physician Alois Alzheimer, who first described it in 1906. Although symptoms can vary widely, the first problem many people notice is forgetfulness severe enough to affect their work, lifelong hobbies or social life. There are tests that can determine whether brain function has been disrupted or destroyed, but there is no reprieve from type of dementia. It only gets worse. As it progresses, other symptoms include confusion, trouble with organizing and expressing thoughts, misplacing things, getting lost in familiar places and wandering, and changes in personality and behavior.
Another common form of dementia that cannot be cured, but can be treated and slowed down (in some patients) if caught early, is Vascular dementia, caused by reduced blood flow to parts of the brain. In mixed dementia, Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia occur together. Sadly, I believe that my own very brilliant and talented father has this type. He is still intelligent, but he can’t manage anything mechanical, (e.g. how to turn a radio or television on and off). Even though he was once the Editor of a prestigious medical bulletin, he cannot find the words to expres himself properly. He doesn’t remember my mother, his wife of more than 53 years either from memories, or from photos. He was a wonderful pianist and played a number of other instruments, but now he can’t make music at all. He once said: “when a pianist can no longer play, he has died.” Alas, Dad is fairly robust physically, but has lost the ability to enjoy hobbies, learn anything new, or remember much of the past or even the immediate present.
Watching my father slowly and painfully become increasingly confused and upset about the loss of his abilities with dementia, often poetically termed “the long goodbye” is painful for him, and also for me. I feel so totally helpless even though he wants to be saved from a fate that is (while living with it) often worse than death. I wish I had known more about dementia when his symptoms first started becoming apparent to me, more than 7 years ago. I wish I’d been able to reduce his frustration, and most of all, I wish someone would find a cure.
We’ve learned most of what we know about Alzheimer’s in the last 15 years. There is an accelerating worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, or prevent it from developing. To find programs, information and ways to help in your area visit the home page of the Alzheimer’s Association National Office 225 N. Michigan Ave., Fl. 17, Chicago, IL 60601 http://www.alz.org/apps/findus.asp