Apr 29

Alzheimer’s: Raising Awareness

by Dillon Chaffin

The sixth leading cause of death in the nation isn’t caused by industrial accidents, a poor diet or lung disease. It’s Alzheimer’s disease – a form of dementia – currently affecting more than 18,000 Montanans and around 5.5 million Americans, according to the National Alzheimer’s Association.

The disease generally affects age groups 60 and older, said Robert K. Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University. He expects an “exponential increase” of patients suffering from the disease and related symptoms in the next two decades, as the baby boomer generation comes of age.

A complex and unforgiving illness, Alzheimer’s begins in the hippocampus region of the brain, the area responsible for learning and constructing new memories.

“Think of it as a file cabinet,” Stern said. “The hippocampus allows you to keep new information organized, but in a person with Alzheimer’s, the information cannot be accessed after it’s been ‘filed,’ no matter how hard the person tries.”

On a biological level, the process begins 15 to 20 years before symptoms manifest, Stern added. A bad form of the protein beta-amyloid is the main component of the amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. According to Stern, there is one other major component – the TAU protein – that is attributed to the destruction of nerve cells within the brain, and depending on where cell death occurs, causes symptoms to surface.

Symptoms include memory loss, changes in behavior or increased difficulty performing familiar tasks. Once so much of the brain tissue is destroyed, the patient develops dementia; a clinical syndrome defined as a loss of memory and at least one other cognitive function so detrimental that it affects daily life.

“Dementia is not an illness or disease,” he said. “It’s the end point of a lot of different illnesses and diseases.”

Overall, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for ¾ of cases of dementia. Patients live an average of eight years after diagnosis.

And women are at an even higher risk, according to the National Alzheimer’s Association. Women represent a disproportionate 2/3 of the population suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, for reasons that are unclear to researchers. Studies have found mixed results regarding the relationship between the responsible proteins and the estrogen and progesterone hormones.

Alzheimer’s has also been observed to be more prevalent in the African American and Hispanic populations, as well as in people who have heart disease, or diabetes and even affects those who have a smaller cognitive reserve, as Stern puts it, often seen in those with limited educations.

An even rarer form of Alzheimer’s represents less than 5 percent of all cases, and is referred to as “familial Alzheimer’s disease,” caused by certain genes in DNA. Symptoms generally appear before the age of 60, and sometimes as early as 30 or 40 years old.

But there is good news. Improvements in modern medicine have increased the chances for early detection of the proteins before symptoms manifest. Tests include spinal taps, which look at the presence of the proteins in the spinal fluid, and aren’t as painful or as large a risk as earlier spinal taps were, according to Stern.

A secondary brain scan detects the amount of beta-amyloids within the brain. Both tests are FDA approved, but are not yet covered under Medicare.

As of 2014, there are nationwide clinical trials through research facilities and neurologists that offer medications that potentially curb symptoms before they get worse, or stop them completely.

Alzheimer’s disease has a far-reaching effect on economics as well. An estimated $214 billion dollars a year is spent on patients, with ¼ of Medicare and Medicaid funds going toward care.

In Montana, there were 48,000 caregivers in 2013 who lost $677 million in unpaid hours. Workers and family members also face the economic impacts of missing work, or falling ill under work-related stress, affecting businesses big and small.

To raise awareness and funds for research, the National Alzheimer’s Association hosts 650 different community walks each year. It’s the organization’s largest national event.

Montana is hosting seven of these walks, in the towns of Bozeman, Butte, Eureka, Kalispell, Great Falls, Missoula and Billings during the month of September. The Billings walk is being organized by Lea Ann Yucha, marketing director of Marquis Grand Park, an assisted living facility.

“There are three things that our generation can be sure of: death, taxes, and Alzheimer’s at the rate that the disease is growing,” she said.

The 2013 “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” raised more than $56 million nationwide, with $193,000 of that amount coming from Montana communities, Yucha said. Her goal for the 2014 walk in Billings is to raise $87,000.

More than 400 walkers participate in the Billings event each year, Yucha said. The walk will be held at Zoo Montana, a 70-acre wildlife park in Billings.

Participants can walk the 1-mile or 3-mile course for free, though teams that raise $100 or more receive T-shirts. Teams that raise more than $1,000 are able to pick a prize from the corporate office.

A kick-off event and information session will be held on June 4 at Zoo Montana at 5 p.m. On June 5, the Lake Hills Golf Course in Billings will hold a golfing tournament, Mulligans for Memory.

A summer solstice event will be held on June 21 at the Yellowstone Brewing Company, with live music and a raffle. Participants can register for the walks online at www.alz.org.

To register for a clinical trial, go to http://bit.ly/1dRZCv5.

10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s
1. Memory loss that affects daily life
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or at leisure
4. Confusion with time and place
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
7. Misplacing objects and losing the ability to retrace your steps
8. Decreased or poor judgment
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
10. Changes in mood or personality

Dates for Alzheimer’s awareness and fundraising walks in Montana:
Butte: Saturday, September 6 
Missoula: Sunday, September 7
Great Falls: Saturday, September 13
Eureka: Saturday, September 13
Bozeman: Sunday, September 14
Billings: Sunday, September 21
Kalispell: Saturday, September 27

Dylan Chaffin is a journalism student at the University of Montana and a reporting intern for the Missoulian.

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