Traveling with elderly parents and Dealing with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease.
The recent death of basketball coaching legend Pat Summit at 64 has renewed interest in Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Every day I am often asked questions about when and how it strikes people, often in the “prime of life”. In 2016 nearly 5.4 million Americans are living with some stage of Alzheimer’s.
Here are some things to be aware of…
Early Onset Alzheimer’s is typically recognized by memory loss. Pat Summit first realized she had a problem when calling a routine offensive play on court and went totally blank. Sufferers also experience muscle twitching and spasms. Typically this strikes before age 65, many times in the 40’s and 50’s. After age 65, the risk doubles every five years and reaches nearly 50% according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Causes: It seems to be caused by a buildup in the brain of proteins, plaques and tangles. Scientists believe this buildup kills brain cells. The tangles that are formed then block the movement of nutrients and other essential supplies inside brain cells, thereby killing them. There is also a body of evidence that show heredity can cause this disease.
Other symptoms: Besides memory loss, symptoms include confusion, misplacing things, trouble performing tasks, changes in personality and behavior, decreased judgment, inability to follow directions, language problems, impaired visuospatial skills, social withdrawal and a loss of motivation or initiative. In more severe cases, victims also forget how to perform basic tasks such as dressing themselves or going to the bathroom. Sadly, they forget things such as how to walk and chew food. They may end up bedridden. The incidences in pneumonia among late stage sufferers kills many with Alzheimer’s.
How is it diagnosed: Many things can cause mental confusion and memory problems, such as strokes or mini-strokes, brain tumors, certain medications, infections or a condition known as hydrocephalus in which fluid accumulates in the brain. Doctors need to perform a variety of tests to determine if a person’s memory problems are truly caused by Alzheimer’s.
Doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s by taking a medical history, conducting memory tests, doing physical and neurological exams, running blood tests and scanning the brain with procedures such as PET scans. A PET scan can detect amyloid proteins in the brain, a sign of Alzheimer’s.
What progress is being made?
Doctors hope to treat underlying causes, not just symptoms. Many experimental drugs aim to stop the creation of brain plaques. Future treatments could include a cocktail of medications similar to current state-of-the-art treatments of AIDS and certain cancers.
Congress has increases federal funding for Alzheimer’s research, bringing the total to about $1 billion per year, all aimed at better understanding triggers for the disease and treatment options. With more investment and research will come better understanding and treatment options.