Alzheimer’s Disease: An overlooked killer

Kimochi Inc., a San Francisco Japantown-based nonprofit that provides culturally sensitive care to San Francisco’s seniors, invited the Alzheimer’s Association to present on the disease during a community event.

Through a PowerPoint presentation at an event held in Japantown July 18, Edie Yau, director of diversity and inclusion for the association, described the disease, which affects five million Americans and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Yau also provided information about caring for loved ones afflicted with the disease, and the research related to it.

Kimochi’s Fumiko DiDomizio provided a translation for Japanese speakers.

The event attracted three dozen people, many who have family members who are suffering from the disease.

As people age, becoming forgetful is a part of life. Dementia refers to the loss of memory and other mental abilities, and is caused by changes in the brain.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that cannot be cured with today’s medical knowledge. The disease affects the brain, which is made up of 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. When neurons die due to the disease, the brain begins to have trouble forming memories, thoughts and feelings, said the Alzheimer’s Association.

While all brains atrophy with age, the severity of the process varies. Alzheimer’s leads to cognitive impairment that is serious enough to interfere with one’s daily life. As the disease progresses, the individual’s judgment and reasoning, along with their five senses, also suffers.

“When you touch a hot stove, you know you have to pull your hand away,” said Yau. “But people who suffer from the disease sometimes don’t realize to do that.”

Yau also said that one might perceive a black carpet as a hole in the ground and suffer a loss of spatial orientation.

courtesy of Alzheimer's Association

In its final stages, the disease makes the brain forget how to do the most basic functions, such as breathing or swallowing. Yau said that while the body may be capable of chewing and swallowing food, in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, the mouth simply does not know what to do with the food.

These impairments can affect not only those diagnosed with the disease, but those around them. Many of those at the presentation had family members who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Mary Chen said her mother and another family member have been diagnosed with the disease. She told the group that her mother, now deceased, once got lost while shopping in Chinatown.

“I parked my car across the street and told her I’ll be waiting there while she went to shop…” Chen recalled. “I waited over an hour before I asked the police to look for her all over Chinatown.” Chen’s mother had wandered off, and was found a few hours later on Divisadero Street, two miles from where Chen had parked.

The association states that more than 70 percent of dementia cases for people over age 71 is related to Alzheimer’s disease. Age is the predominant risk factor for the disease. More women are affected since they have a higher life expectancy than men. Yau said there is a genetic predisposition for the disease, but it only affects a small percentage of the population.

“Most scientists do not recommend testing for (the deterministic gene),” Yau said.

Since the disease currently does not have a cure, finding a predisposition for Alzheimer’s would only cause mental duress for patients and may also affect future health insurance rates, said Yau.

Getting Diagnosed

A doctor can help those who are experiencing mood swings, habitually poor judgment, frequent memory loss or social withdrawal — key warning signs for Alzheimer’s, according to the association. Yau advised seeing one’s doctor, and then a neurologist, psychiatrist or neuropsychologist for a more thorough examination, if it is warranted.

“But keep a symptom log,” she advised. “You might seem fine in a 15-minute doctor visit and doctors might not be able to tell if anything is wrong at the time they meet you.”

The symptom log, which includes a list of symptoms related to Alzheimer’s, should be specific in including when, how often and where problems arise. It should be made in collaboration with other family members to ensure thoroughness. The log should also include a list of current and previous health problems, and a list of all medications (including herbal supplements).

Once diagnosed, the issue of dealing with the disease becomes a dour reality. Various drugs are used to help provide relief from symptoms, but there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. For many suffering from the disease, the worst part comes at the beginning while they are still cognizant of their mental atrophy. Family members suffer in particular during the later stages, when they must make difficult decisions that decide how to care for their ailing relative.

“It’s hard to think ‘what would mom want me to do in this instance?’ when you don’t have any guidelines from her,” said Yau.

Yau thus advised those diagnosed with the disease to set their financial and future care plans while they are still capable of making that decision for themselves.
In the meantime, healthy living is the primary preventative measure to staving off the disease. Yau considers exercise and a healthy diet that consists of fresh greens and reduced fat, the “fountain of youth.”

She said that maintaining a healthy heart is important.

“After all, 25 percent of each heart beat is pumping blood to your brain,” she said.

Mental activity, however, should not be ruled out. Social connectedness and cognitive engagement helps seniors stay mentally active. Yau advised seniors to read the newspaper, solve Sudoku puzzles or watch documentaries on PBS. As the saying goes, “use it or lose it.”

Hope in the Future

Despite the lack of a cure and the cruelty of the disease, Yau remains confident about the future.

“Currently, only $400 million is devoted to Alzheimer’s research,” she said. “The disease needs more attention.”

According to the association’s statistics, the federal government has dedicated much more money to other causes. Currently, cancer research receives $6 billion, heart disease receives $4 billion and HIV receives $3 billion each year. Whereas the death rates for these three diseases have gone down between 2000 and 2008, the association reports that deaths by Alzheimer’s have increased by 66 percent. Research has helped people to control these ailments, whereas Alzheimer’s remains an essential death sentence.

Attention, however, is growing for research. According to the association, President Barack Obama, in January of 2011, recently signed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) into law, which will create a national plan to “address and overcome the rapidly escalating crisis of Alzheimer’s.”

Alzheimer’s Resources

Kimochi, Inc.
(415) 931-2294
www.kimochi-inc.org
Fumiko DiDomizio runs a monthly meeting for caretakers in both Japanese and English on the second floor of Kimochi Inc., 1715 Buchanan St., in San Francisco’s Japantown. Meetings in Japanese held every second Tuesday of the month. Meetings in English held on every third Thursday.
For more information, contact DiDomizio at (415) 931-2275 or fdidomizio@kimochi-inc.org.

Alzheimer’s Association
1-800-272-3900
www.alz.org/norcal
The Alzheimer’s Association has a helpline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for those afflicted with the disease and their caretakers, as well as Web forums and support groups.

Comments

  1. my poor betty, the lite of every social occasion in our family has been dx with ad. is there any way to retard the progression of this ugly disease?

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