HIBBING — Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death, and affects millions of people daily.
It is also the most costly disease in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Every hour, Alzheimer’s costs taxpayers $18.3 million. The cost of Alzheimer’s is expected to quadruple to more than $1 trillion over the next generation.
Today, 1 in 3 seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
Dr. Mitch Cardwell, family physician at Hibbing Family Medical Clinic, is familiar with Alzheimer’s, as he lost his grandmother to the disease.
She lived with Alzheimer’s for 20 years before passing away.
“There are definite stages that you go through,” said Cardwell. “My family chose not to tell her her diagnosis, which I think is a mistake. In my practice, I don’t advocate for that. I think that knowing what you have gets rid of some of the fear.”
Alzheimer’s, as defined by the association, is “a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.” It’s the most common form of dementia, which is a general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities that are serious enough to interfere with daily life.
Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
“In the beginning, there was a lot of fear, especially back in the day when they didn’t know what Alzheimer’s was,” said Cardwell.
He spoke about past studies and current research, including an ongoing study at the Mayo which is doing dementia studies using PET scans to identify the parts of the brain for each kind of defect.
“We have all of these new diagnoses, but that all means the same thing — it’s a dementia that we can’t treat, but at least we know where it’s coming from and eventually there may be some treatment options,” said Cardwell.
While the greatest known risk factor is increasing age, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. The majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, but it’s not just a disease of old age, according to the association.
Up to 5 percent of people with the disease have early onset Alzheimer’s — also known as younger-onset — which often appears when someone is in their 40s or 50s.
Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.
There is no definitive test to diagnose Alzheimer’s, except for post-mortem sampling of the brain, said Cardwell. There are some psychiatric and psychological tests that can be used to help rule out other factors, such as stress and anxiety, that could be construed as dementia.
It’s unknown what exactly causes dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“My grandma was the picture of health, and she had it,” said Cardwell. “She was active, loved to sing and could do splits into her 80s. … If she hadn’t had Alzheimer’s, she’d lived to be 100.”
And those with the disease will surprise you too, more so as the symptoms gradually worsen.
“I knew my grandmother could sign, but had no idea she know how to play an instrument,” said Cardwell. “I sat her down at a piano at a friend’s house, left the room and came back to her playing the piano. Her children later told me that she had played several instruments when she was younger.”
Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions, according to the association.
There is no current cure for Alzheimer’s, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continues. Treatments can’t stop Alzheimer’s from progressing, but they can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s.
The best way to prevent the onset of dementia is to focus on your health and live a healthy lifestyle, said Cardwell.
Today, there is a worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset and prevent it from developing. It’s slowly gaining more awareness as the number of deaths and costs of the disease continue to rise.
“I think Glen Campbell helped the cause last year when his diagnosis came out and he made mistakes while on stage during his farewell tour,” said Cardwell.
Researchers are working to uncover as many aspects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as possible. Ninety percent of what’s known about Alzheimer’s has been discovered in the last 15 years, according to the association. The hope is a better understanding will lead to new treatments.
Cardwell noted that many potential approaches are currently being researched, and he’s hopeful a cure will someday be found.
“Over the years, I had forgotten who my grandma was,” he said. “I saw who she became. You grow to be OK with that, to slowly accept what level you can just get through it.”
Alzheimer’s took his grandmother’s life, but he won’t let it rob him of his memories of her.
If you go ...
• What: Free program on Alzheimer’s disease hosted by Jenna Herbig of the Alzheimer’s Association. Event will include definitions, risk factors, diagnosis, treatments and hope for the future.
• Where: 3 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20
• When: Tourist Center Senior Citizens, 1202 E. Howard St. Handicap accessible. Plenty of parking.
• Who: Everyone is invited.
Top 10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:
• Memory loss that disrupts daily life
• Challenges in planning or solving problems
• Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
• Confusion with time or place
• Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
• New problems with words in speaking or writing
• Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
• Decreased or poor judgement
• Withdrawal from work or social activities
• Changes in mood and personality
Source: Alzheimer’s Association