Alzheimer’s onslaught

Pam
Pam Frampton
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A huge wave is coming and we are not prepared

Alzheimer’s is a ruthless thief that grows more daring with time. It steals your short-term memory first, then moves on to other things: the ability to perform tasks you enjoy — sewing, cooking, driving your car, following the complex storyline of a movie.

It has indiscriminate tastes.

Like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, though far more sinister, it will eventually take every last crumb: your knowledge of what day it is and where you are, your ability to dress and bathe, the well-loved and burnished life memories you thought you’d have forever.

Eventually, it will come for your familiarity with the people around you, and then it will come for the rest.

Alzheimer’s is not the only form of dementia that is debilitating, of course, but it’s the one we hear about the most.

But how much do we really know? Not as much as we should, according to survey results released last month by the Alzheimer’s Association.

People in 12 countries were polled, including Canada, and their responses show there are still plenty of myths out there.

For example, 59 per cent considered Alzheimer’s to be a typical part of aging. It isn’t. Nor do you have to have a family history of Alzheimer’s to develop it — anyone with a brain is at risk, and there is no cure.

And even though Alzheimer’s came second only to cancer when respondents were asked which disease they feared most, and even though 96 per cent said being self-sufficient in their later years was important to them, many countries are nowhere near prepared for the juggernaut of dementia that is looming.

“I think that there is a global tsunami of Alzheimer’s coming at the world,” Angela Geiger said when I spoke to her recently about the survey results.

She’s the chief strategy officer for the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association.

“It’s an interesting thing that people fear it, but many people are so misinformed. We don’t know the answers to what can be done to prevent Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “Right now, we just really need more research and research funding.”

Warning signs

Geiger said people need to educate themselves about Alzheimer’s so they can help themselves and family members recognize the early symptoms.

“First of all, if you or someone you care about has any of the 10 warning signs, go and get medical help immediately,” she said.

(You can find those warning signs here: http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp)

Geiger hopes the 17 nations that have plans in place to tackle Alzheimer’s — including Australia, France and the United States — will inspire countries that are lagging behind.

Like Canada.

Despite fervent calls from federal opposition parties, the Conservative government has no strategy for dementia care.

You’ve probably heard the statistics: there are 747,000 Canadians with Alzheimer’s and other dementias and that’s expected to double by 2031, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

Dementia costs the country $33 billion per year and that will spike to $293 billion per year by 2040.

“The baby boomers are getting older, and will stay older for longer. And they will run right into the dementia firing range. How will a society cope?” — Terry Pratchett, British author and Alzheimer’s advocate. He was diagnosed with an early onset form of the disease in 2007.

But statistics don’t move you like seeing someone you love stricken with dementia does. That’s when the toll literally hits home and the numbers take on real meaning.

Inadequate resources

According to a May 26 article by Erin Ellis in the Vancouver Sun, the health system is already feeling the strain.

Ellis writes that “the rising tide of dementia patients is destabilizing hospital care in Canada,” according to the incoming president of the Canadian Medical Association.

“The reason your father has to wait nine months for a hip replacement is that the beds are being used by dementia patients,” said Dr. Chris Simpson, a cardiologist based in Kingston, Ont. “That is the single biggest reason why elective surgery wait times are so long.”

Dementia patients often end up in a regular hospital, which he said is “a dangerous and toxic place” for them because they aren’t getting the care they need and are more likely to pick up a hospital-borne infection. In addition, the average cost of an acute care bed in Canada is more than $800 per day compared to about $125 per day in long-term care.

People with Alzheimer’s need speedy diagnosis, effective treatment and specialized care, and there needs to be support for family members looking after them.

In this province, people hit a roadblock from the outset, as it can take months or more than a year to see a psychiatrist, and then months more to go through the assessment process that leads to diagnosis.

And often, by the time a person’s symptoms are evident enough that family members broach the subject and get the diagnostic ball rolling, the dementia has advanced beyond the point where treatment would have had the most beneficial effect.

In the U.S., people covered under medicare quality for a free “annual wellness visit,” during which their doctor reviews their general health and the medications they’re on, as well as their functional ability, including any signs of cognitive impairment.

Such a formalized program here might at least identify people at risk for dementia more efficiently than is the case now and get them on the road toward treatment.

We’ve got to do something.

The dementia tsunami may not have hit yet with full force, but the waves are getting higher every day.

Take the test

If you are between the ages of 50-79, you can take a free brain health assessment at www.cogniciti.com.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and

The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Alzheimer Society of Canada.Dementia, Canadian Medical Association

Geographic location: Canada, United States, Australia France Kingston

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