Monday, December 25, 2006
My uncle, Rudy, died of complications from Alzheimer's when he was 83. Although he was diagnosed with the illness in his early seventies, we think he was suffering from it long before that. What his family thought back then were just quirks - like brushing his teeth four times in one hour or wearing someone else's shoes - were probably signs of a man already losing his cognitive skills. Back then, no one knew very much about Alzheimer's. There weren't any treatments, no tests to really prove he had it... just a long waiting period of watching a vibrant man waste away.
But today there's hope. Drugs are in development to arrest the disease and new technology is helping doctors catch the illness in its earlier stages before it becomes debilitating. Recently, researchers at UCLA announced they are using a new brain imaging technique that allows doctors to see Alzheimer's before the disease hits, meaning physicians can begin treating the illness earlier. When the next generation of Alzheimer's drugs reach the market, doctors using this brain imaging technology may be able to treat Alzheimer's the way they now treat high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
The scan can detect abnormalities in the brain such as plaque buildup and nerve tangles which are the signature of the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Up until now, the only way to detect these problems was through an autopsy. Scientists say the scan could help doctors slow the progression of the disease or even stop it.
The key of course is to find the cause. And as of now, no one knows exactly why Alzheimer's happens. Some doctors say it's genetic, some say it's lifestyle... others say it's both. But more and more evidence points to lifestyle choices as playing a key role. Physicians are finding that many patients who suffer form heart disease and diabetes have a greater chance of developing Alzheimer's. It's well known that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, so doctors worry that this may be putting these groups at higher risk for developing cognitive problems.
In fact, the Alzheimer's Association expects the rate of the disease to explode among minorities... and that by the year 2050 the number of Hispanics with Alzheimer's will grow by more than 600 percent. It also predicts that in twenty more years, the number of African Americans with Alzheimer's is expected to double. Health experts say, educating minority groups on healthy living is crucial if we are going to fight the war on Alzheimer's and win.
If someone you love is showing signs that they may be suffering from Alzheimer's... act now... don't wait. Call a neurologist, make an appointment. Early diagnosis is essential. As one doctor I spoke to said... "It's easier to protect a healthy brain then to repair one that's already damaged."
Treating Alzheimer's earlier can help a patient live a longer, fuller life. .. A life I wish my uncle could have had so many years ago.
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