Dec 28, 2008

Can Baby Boomers Dodge the Alzheimer's Bullet?

For the last five years I have been caring for my mother--she suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

During this time, I read most of the books on this subject and thousands of articles. This is my 456th article about Alzheimer's. I lost track of the number of doctors and specialists visits I attended with my mother.

I spent thousands and thousands of hours thinking about Alzheimer's. I lived Alzheimer's from the front row for more than 45,000 hours.

I am a baby boomer and I think about what Alzheimer's could do to my generation. Current statistics indicate that ten million baby boomer's are likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease in the future. Of course, a cure or preventative treatment might change these numbers. Might.

Unless you live in the
front row of Alzheimer's you can never envision what it is like.

There are two parts to this equation--the person suffering from Alzheimer's and the Alzheimer's caregiver.

The sufferer is living with a death sentence--certain brain death. A slow but steady fade into the darkness of memory loss. A state of confusion that worsens each and every day. A horrific experience that is hard to describe. Imagine yourself living a life where you can't brush your teeth, take a shower, or eat on your own. Meanwhile, everything but your brain is functioning normally. It only gets worse, someday you won't recognize your spouse or your children. This is the fate of an Alzheimer's sufferer.

The caregiver lives life on a roller coaster of emotion. Imagine being happy and then sad, caring then angry, focused then frustrated, an almost endless stream of feelings and emotions that conflict. The caregiver lives an anxiety filled life day-after-day. Imagine this uncertainty as a way of life--it is heart wrenching. The caregiver watches as their loved one takes on erratic behaviors that are hard to deal with and hard to comprehend. Less well known is that a large fraction, as high as forty percent, of Alzheimer's caregivers end up suffering from depression. The caregiver nevers knows when this craziness might come to an end. Alzheimer's is an illness that breeds illness.
The actual experience and feeling of helplessness cannot be described. Knowing that the day is coming when they --won't know you-- is the most horrific feeling of them all.
If you are married to a baby boomer or the son or daughter of a baby boomer you might ask yourself what are the odds that you could fall into one of the two categories described above? Hard to imagine? A 65 year old baby boomer will have a one in six chance of suffering from Alzheimer's. The odds increase each year until age 85 when it rises to 50 percent. One out of every two baby boomer's age 85 or older can expect to suffer from Alzheimer's disease. Many of their children can expect to suffer right along with them as caregivers or worse.

The oldest of the baby boomer's is 62 right now. The Alzheimer's tsunami is right around the corner. If you do the math it is easy to see that a large fraction of our population is going to be touched by Alzheimer's soon. The husbands and wives, the children, the aunt's, uncle's, cousins and close friends. What is the number? Fifty million? One hundred million? I hope this concerns you--it should.

There is no known cure for Alzheimer's. Until they autopsy your brain they won't be sure you actually suffered from Alzheimer's. Unlike other terminal diseases that present and worsen rapidly, Alzheimer's is a sinister disease--it develops very slowly over a long period of time. You might be suffering from a very early stage of mild cognitive impairment right now and you might go undiagnosed for years even decades. Mild cognitive impairment is often a precurser to Alzheimer's disease.

Few people know this, a person suffering from an early stage of Alzheimer's can function normally for years. My mother drove her car, shopped for groceries, played bingo and interacted with her friends. When her behavior started to change her friends all said the same thing--she's getting old. After all, she was living on her own, feeding herself, and was apparently self sufficient. The fact that she stopped calling them, started to complain all the time about money, stopped going to the pool, and dragged her feet when she walked didn't raise a red flag. She was getting old.

Can Baby Boomers Dodge the Alzheimer's Bullet?

This might be controversial but it is my belief that you can do something. By taking control you might be able to stave off Alzheimer's or at the minimum stave it off for years. This might sound both harsh and crazy, but, in doing so you might die before the disease strikes. I guess you need to know me to read this without cringing. I already mentioned, I have been thinking about this for years.

Here is what I believe you should be doing.

There is substantial scientific evidence that exercise helps you live a longer and healthier life. It is also known that as you age the blood flow to your brain begins to slow. Health complications like high cholesterol and high blood pressure both reduce the flow of blood to the brain.

"This finding is significant because it suggests that improving blood flow to the brain might be an effective therapeutic approach to prevent or treat Alzheimer's," Robert Vassar, Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

I have written extensively on this blog about the positive effect exercise has on my mother who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Imagine my mother for the first time in her life walking into a gym--she was 88 years old. Imagine this tiny five foot women working on the shoulder/chest machine (the one where you pull down on the bar and the stack of weights goes up), the leg press machine, and walking on a treadmill. If she can do it, you can too. Oddly, my mother prefers the weights to the treadmill.

Right now, my mother can barely walk. When I put her on the treadmill she can walk. It is very difficult for my mother to walk into the gym--she needs my help. On the way out, she can make it on her own.It finally dawned on me over time that her brain is no longer capable of sending the proper signal to her legs. This no longer surprises me--the further away from the brain the weaker the signal. Blood flow to her brain?

Previously, I wrote an about Five Ways to Keep Alzheimer's Away.

In the article I discuss: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, big belly, cocoa flavanol rich beverages, vitamin B12, and of course, exercise.

If it sounds boring then consider this-- high cholesterol in your 40s increases the odds of contracting Alzheimer's by 50 percent.

If you have a big belly in middle age the chances that you could suffer from dementia are tripled. It is up to you to make the decision about Alzheimer's disease.

You can sit back and hope it won't be you. Or, you can do something about it by engaging in habits that will increase the flow of bood to your brain. It's up to you--do you want to dodge the Alzheimer's bullet or roll the dice?

Popular articles on the Alzheimer's Reading Room
Bob DeMarco is the editor of the Alzheimer's Reading Room and an Alzheimer's caregiver. Bob resides in Delray Beach, FL.
Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room