Kristen Cusato, Southwest regional director of the Connecticut chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, recently assured audience members at a Y’s Men of Westport/Weston meeting they are not the only ones who can’t find their cell phones — unless they do it frequently — in her talk “A World Without Alzheimer’s.”
It’s not unusual for seniors to occasionally forget where they put their phone, forget a face or a name, or make an error balancing their checkbook. It’s a part of aging.
But, Ms. Cusato said, when people lose things, get confused about time or place, have a tough time finishing daily tasks, or have problems in conversation, or when they start withdrawing from regular activities to the extent that these changes affect their daily lives, they may well have Alzheimer’s disease.
The Alzheimer’s Association website calls the disease a “type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.” It adds that it is a “general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life.”
It is the most common form of dementia — 70% of dementia diagnoses are Alzheimer’s. One in eight people over 65 has been diagnosed with it, as have 50% of those over 85. There have been 70,000 people in Connecticut diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And many others “who are not socially involved” may well also display its symptoms.
Unfortunately, Ms. Cusato said, while cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDs receive in the “billions of dollars for research annually,” Alzheimer’s and dementia receive “only” some $500 million.
“There is no magic bullet, and nothing stops it once it starts,” she said. Doctors know its symptoms, but not its causes; they can retard its progression, but can neither reverse nor cure it. And they “don’t know it’s Alzheimer’s until an autopsy is performed.”
Researchers have identified traits and behaviors that appear to enhance a person’s likelihood of falling victim to it. A gene — APOE4 — is often co-incident, though it has not been shown to be determinative. If Alzheimer’s is in your family, if you are diabetic, if you are a late life alcoholic, your probability rises. But none of these, either, is determinative.
And there is no prevention program, but “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” Ms. Cusato said. She recommended walking, playing word games, continuing to go to meetings, and eating healthily.
A former TV news anchor, Ms. Cusato has a personal interest. Her mother’s mother died of it, and her mother, too, just this year.
Ms. Cusato works with people in this part of the state to train health care professionals and family members to help those suffering from the disease, educate the general public, and raise money for research.
The healthy brain, she said, weighs three pounds. One with dementia weighs half that and looks like a “sponge with no water.”
What does dementia do? We drink water by grasping a cup, raising it to our lips, taking the drink. A person with Alzheimer’s forgets a step. She said her mother, a coffee drinker all her life, one day said she wanted tea. Ms. Cusato asked why and learned that her mother couldn’t remember all of what she called a “32-step process” to make coffee.
The brain’s neurons, or nerve cells, enable our actions. The brain has 100 billion neurons, grouped into networks, each controlling a separate task or function. As we age, proteins called plaques squeeze their way into our neural networks, inhibit the systematic and sequential firing of neurons and so whittle away at our abilities.
In dementia sufferers, plaque blocks an increasing number of neural connections, takes away the ability to complete once common actions, kills great numbers of brain cells, and so changes our capabilities and our daily lives.
Learning and memory, thinking and planning, speaking and understanding speech, and a sense of relationship of the body to what’s around it are all abilities reduced by Alzheimer’s.
While the medical causes of dementia are not yet clear, behavioral factors are. Ms. Cusato reviewed the disease’s 10 common symptoms:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life — forgetting names of people one knows.
- Challenges in planning or solving problems (the precise checkbook balancer loses that ability).
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks (forgetting how to make coffee or set a microwave).
- Confusion with time or place (going to a store and forgetting the way home.
- Trouble understanding visual cues and spatial relationships (trouble judging distances), making driving unsafe.
- Problems maintaining a conversation (stopping in the middle of a sentence and not being able to continue).
- Misplacing objects and not being able to retrace (forgetting where a cell phone was left).
- Making poor judgments — getting scammed by telemarketers, for example.
- Withdrawing from people, groups and activities the person once enjoyed — having trouble keeping up with an activity or a favorite team.
- Changes in mood or personality — getting upset when out of one’s (shrinking) comfort zone.
Part of Alzheimer’s is that the “world gets smaller as the brain shrinks.” Ms. Cusato said caregivers “have to get into the [Alzheimer’s sufferer’s] reality, don’t argue, adapt to their situation.”
When a loved one’s symptoms begin to change the person’s daily life, “visiting a neurologist” is in order — and gathering a team of caregivers. At some point, looking into assisted living, obtaining power of attorney, even deciding about DNR become appropriate.
The Alzheimer’s Association’s helpline, 800-272-3900, is available “24/7 and serves people with memory loss, caregivers, health care professionals, and the public,” Ms. Cusato said.
Anyone interested in becoming a caregiver or supporting the fight to eliminate the disease may visit the Alzheimer Association’s website, alz.org/ct.