Is your memory failing you?

by Henrylito D. Tacio

One in 20 persons over the age of 65 develops Alzheimer’s disease.  That’s one of the information I learned when I was writing my feature story on the mind-snatching ailment for the Asian edition of the widely-circulated Reader’s Digest (December 2007 issue).

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder with no known cause or cure. It attacks and slowly steals the minds of its victims. Symptoms of the disease include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, personality changes, disorientation, and loss of language skills. Always fatal, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of irreversible dementia.

Medical doctors say the disease often starts in late middle life with slight defects in memory and behavior.  That’s what had happened to my grandmother, who died of the complications of the disease.  “Alzheimer’s disease is seen more commonly in the older age group,” says Dr. Manolette R. Guerrero, chairman of the Department of Nuerosciences at the Davao Medical School Foundation.  With our population aging and the increase of life expectancy we expect more cases rather than less.”

Having memory problem is not actually part of aging, although it strikes mostly adults.  Memory loss is always the first sign of the disease.  Charito, for instance, admits she has trouble with words and sometimes, simple physical tasks such as preparing the table for dinner.  Her memory troubles, however, come and go.

“There are times when I don’t have any problem,” she says.  “But there are also instances that I don’t know what I am doing at all.”

A friend, who is a doctor, diagnosed Charito as having mild cognitive impairment.  Experts say that people with such kind of impairment has an 80 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  Her mother suffered through the disease for 20 years.  “Of course, I fear that I may follow what my mother went through,” she says.  “I hope that medical science can do something about this disease.”

But the good news is: scientists all over the world are now trying to find individual drugs, drug combinations or even a vaccine to disrupt the destructive process of the disease.  “In a few short years, Alzheimer’s disease will be changed from a terminal disease to a chronic disease,” said Dr. Marwan N. Sabbagh, the American director of clinical research at the Cleo Roberts Center of Clinical Research in Arizona.

Dr. Guerrero agrees.  “There will come a time when Alzheimer’s disease will become a thing of the past,” he points out.

“We feel confident that in time, researchers will develop ways to prevent, treat or cure this devastating disease,” says Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust. Based in United Kingdom, the trust funds scientific and medical research looking at ways to target the different aspects of dementia pathology in order to understand the disease process, improve early diagnosis, stop disease progression and ultimately find a cure. 

We are hearing the first true note of optimism in the history of this fear-inducing disease that now affects 26 million people, almost half of which are from Asia. With an estimated 62.8 million Asians to be diagnosed with the disease of the world’s projected 106 million Alzheimer’s patients, the optimism couldn’t come at a better time.

Most of the drugs, however, are still under studies.  “Most of these are still experimental and limited to animal studies, (so) it is very difficult to predict results among human beings,” says Dr.  Eleanor Ong, a well-known neurologist at the Davao Doctor’s Hospital.

Currently, more than 20 potential new drugs are currently being tested in clinical trials or are awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The American government requires that all new medicines undergo rigorous testing in the laboratory, first in animals and then in human volunteers, before they can be prescribed by doctors or sold in pharmacies.

Once the required clinical trials are completed, companies submit an application to the FDA, the government agency responsible for the safety of foods and drugs sold in the U.S. Together with an independent panel of medical advisors, the FDA reviews the scientific data and determines whether the drug is safe and effective for people with Alzheimer’s.

According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, non-drug treatments are also often used these days to allay symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and ease stress, though few rigorous studies have been done on these therapies. Such treatments include bright light therapy, music therapy, aromatherapy (the use of pleasing scents), pet therapy, and psychological counseling.

If you think you or someone you know is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, consult your doctor immediately.  Don’t wait for tomorrow.  That’s seems to be the strong message of Leo Ferrari, a philosophy professor at St. Thomas University in Canada.  Leo, 78, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003, but symptoms of confusion and forgetfulness probably started appearing as early as 1998. “It was hard to tell as I’ve always been a bit of an absent-minded professor,” says Leo.

Leo and his wife, Lorna Drew, wrote a book, Different Minds, describing their side-by-side perspectives. Leo charts the strange, disturbing process in his brain, Lorna, the stress and difficulties she experiences watching her husband decline.

They have a strong message for others who may have early symptoms of the disease: “Don’t delay; getting early diagnosis and going public with the disease is really, really important,” says Lorna. “There is nothing to be ashamed of.”

For further details about Alzheimer’s disease and latest drugs available, please get a copy of the December issue of Reader’s Digest. The article can be read on pages 66-73.


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