THEY FORGET HOW to do familiar things. They do not recognize the people they love. They have difficulty understanding a conversation. You might even see them acting in an unusual manner, pacing around a room.
These changes occur over many years and get worse over time. These actions are not their fault; rather, they are suffering the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, which causes thinking and memory to become seriously impaired, is the most common form of dementia. Dementia is a syndrome consisting of a number of symptoms that include loss of memory, judgment and reasoning, and changes in mood, behaviour and communication abilities.
Dr Susan Vaitekunas, a geriatric doctor from Montreal, Canada, gave EASY MAGAZINE a better understanding about of the disease last week at the Island Inn where she stayed while participating in the Barbados Alzheimer’s Association’s week of activities.
“It is a very hard disease to live with. You basically see a person whom you have known all your life change before your eyes. And they don’t just change and then stay that way. They change and get worse with time,” she said.
The doctor, also co-director of the memory clinic at the Jewish General Hospital in Canada, explained that a number of people get the disease because there was an interaction between Alzheimer’s and a number of other diseases and health issues.
“There is an interaction between Alzheimer’s and what we call vascular risk factor, such as the same things that cause people to have heart attacks and problems with the circulation in their legs that require amputation.
“There is an interaction between hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and your susceptibility to develop Alzheimer’s.
“So, for example, if you have diabetes you are three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than somebody who doesn’t have diabetes. There is also an interaction with Alzheimer’s and brain injuries.
“People who have had concussions or have been knocked out – such as hockey players, football players, boxers and people who during their sports career got hit in the head a lot – are at very high risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
It is called dementia pugilistica (a form of Alzheimer’s),” she explained.
The doctor, who has for over 20 years taken care of people suffering from Alzheimer’s from the time they are diagnosed until death, noted that the disease was hereditary.
“If your mum had Alzheimer’s at a very young age, say, in her 30s and 40s, and you came to see me as a doctor, I would send you to see a geneticist and get you tested for the genes. But in order to do that, people have to go through testing because it’s not a small thing.
“You have a 50-50 chance of being told yes, you are going to get Alzheimer’s.
“You have to think before you go through with the test. Do you want to know? Not everybody would find something like that very easy to deal with. People who are sent for that sort of testing have to go through a lot of counselling first. They have to see a psychologist to make sure that the news is not going to make them fall apart.”
In a cool tone, the doctor disclosed that she personally believed that a cure would not be found for the Alzheimer’s in her lifetime. She pointed out that she was happy with the research being done across the world, noting that research was a long process.
The process, she believed, has frustrated the families of some 36 million people suffering from Alzheimer’s who are waiting to see if “next year somebody is going to come up with the cure”.
“I was watching television 40 years ago when Richard Nixon (the 37th president of the United States) declared war on cancer. And it’s obviously not a war that we are winning – because the more you research cancer, the more you realize that even breast cancer is not one disease, it’s a whole bunch of different diseases.
“So the more we learn about dementia and Alzheimer’s, we realize that it’s a very complex disease and the more we go into it, we realize there’s so much more we don’t understand.”
And while the reality is that there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, Dr Vaitekunas said the treatments currently available for this disease help some suffers live a comfortable life.
But the earlier these treatments are initiated in the course of the illness, the more effective they are.
“It is important to pick this disease up early because the earlier you get the diagnosis, the more [you] can be prepared.
“At the beginning of Alzheimer’s, there is still a lot people can do. Their families can talk to them about what their wishes are once the disease gets worse; how they want to be cared for. If they haven’t made a will, they still have time to do it.”