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Here’s to Your Health

Joan Jacobson

I know that many of you who saw the film "Away From Her" were affected as I was by Julie Christie’s performance in which she began to lose her memory and actually wandered away from her home one night. Her frantic husband drove around the town and finally found her. She ultimately decided to check herself into a home specializing in Alzheimer’s disease. Fiona (her name in the film) did not want to burden her loving husband of 45 years. The transition was heartbreaking, not too many dry eyes in the theater. When it was over, the solemn theatergoers filed out and I overheard one man say, "That was my mother," another woman said "So sad, it could be me in the future." It’s the kind of film that lingers on in our memories.

In December 2006, US News and World Report published an article "Alzheimer’s Today." The big news in the story was that it appears that younger people in their 50s are being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. It is reported that as many as 640,000 Americans under 65 are suffering from dementia caused by the disease. This is reported by Dr. Ronald Peterson, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic. He notes that in the past five years, more and more individuals in their 40s and 50s are showing up and asking for help. "Alzheimer’s is not just a disease that hits 80 year olds in nursing homes," says Dallas Anderson, a specialist in the epidemiology of dementia at the National Institute on Aging. The director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Pierre Tariot, reports that "there’s not enough help for younger people with dementia, or older people."

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is not a normal part of aging. It is a devastating disorder of the brain’s nerve cells that impairs memory, thinking and behavior and leads, ultimately, to death. The impact of AD on individuals, families and our health care system makes the disease one of our nation’s greatest medical, social and economic challenges. This information is supplied by the Alzheimer’s Foundation. It is estimated that 4.5 million Americans have the disease that has more than doubled since 1980. These numbers will continue to grow. By 2050, the numbers could rise as high as 11.3 to 16 million. Finding a treatment that could delay onset by five years could reduce the number with the disease nearly 50 percent over 50 years.

A Gallup poll, commissioned by the AD Foundation, found that one in 10 Americans said that they had a family member with the disease and one in three knew someone who had the disease.

Increasing age is a major risk factor. One in 10 individuals over 65 and nearly half of those over 85 have the disease. As mentioned above, rare, inherited forms of AD can strike individuals as early as their 30s and 40s (Annals of Neurology, 1989).

Longevity of an AD patient can be as short as eight years and as long as 20 or more years. From the time of diagnosis, AD patients generally survive about half as long as an individual without the disease. Just imagine the plight of the families who care for these individuals. Many cannot afford nursing home care. It is truly an emerging national problem.

National direct and indirect annual costs of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are at least $100 billion, according to estimates used by the Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institute on Aging. It costs American businesses $61 billion a year. This was reported by the Alzheimer’s Association Commission. Of that figure, $24.6 billion covers Alzheimer’s health care and $36.5 billion covers costs related to caregivers of individuals with AD, including lost productivity, absenteeism and worker replacement.

Half of all nursing-home residents have AD or a related disorder. Nursing care is $42,000 but can exceed $70,000 annually. The average lifetime cost for a patient with AD is $174,000. Medicare costs for beneficiaries with AD are expected to increase 75 percent, from $91 billion in 2005 to $160 billion in 2010. Medicaid expenditures on residential dementia care will increase 14 percent, from $21 billion in 2005 to $24 billion in 2010. This is the report of the AD Association’s Commission Report.

The Alzheimer’s Association has awarded $200 million in research grants since 1982, according to the annual audited financial statements. It is estimated that the federal government spent approximately $647 million for AD in fiscal year 2005. Where we go from here is the question. AD is on the rise and we must rise to the occasion and fund the research for this dreaded and devastating disease.

Sadly, the 2006 International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease (ICAD) reports NO unequivocal breakthroughs. The July conference in Madrid, Spain did highlight many exciting works in progress, ranging from methods for early and more accurate differential diagnosis of dementia to an impressive array of potential disease-modifying treatments for various stages of pre-clinical and clinical development. They are looking for deposits of amyloid or plaque using the latest brain imaging technology, and an analysis of cerebrospinal fluid to provide early detection of amyloid/plaque development.

There is still a long way to go. The problem is growing and the public needs to be made aware. It is indeed a heartbreaking process.


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