10 Facts You Need to Know About the Devastating Disease You or Someone You Love Will Likely Get

Personal Health

Chances are you know someone who is directly affected by the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps even you are watching a loved one’s mental powers and very identity ebb away. In my case, it is a dear friend whose mother has been diagnosed with the disease, and is already driving her family crazy by asking the same questions over and over. My friend’s father is a cheerful soul, but sadness and worry has crept into his eyes. This family knows that repetitive anxious questions are just the beginning of an illness that gets unimaginably worse.

My own brilliant, egg-heady father lost considerable brain power toward the end of his life and became increasingly senile before he died. When my mother could no longer take care of him at home, he spent his last months in a low-tech nursing home where many of the residents were afflicted by a dementia far more pernicious than his. They would call out nonsensically or just wail continuously, terrified of phantoms only they could see. They looked like people, but were hollowed out and stripped of their identities—there, but not there. No one ever seemed to visit them.

In the very near future, few of us will escape Alzheimer’s. Not all of us will get it, of course, but most of us will be directly affected by it. That’s because we’re an aging society, and although Alzheimer’s can strike younger people, the chances of getting it rise sharply with age. By 2030, it is said, the population of Americans aged 65 or older will have doubled.

We may all know a few sad Alzheimer’s tales now, “but this trickle of Alzheimer’s narratives will one day be an inundation,” writes Kent Russell in a devastating recent piece in the New Republic called, “We Are Entering the Age of Alzheimer’s.” In it, he writes about his father who is lost to the disease. So anguished is Russell over his father's dwindling mental capacity that he confesses he has considered a mercy killing. It is a story many of us will live in one shape or another in the years to come, unless a medical miracle occurs soon. In fact, the insidious disease may already have taken root in some of our brains, where it hangs out slowly wreaking havoc well before it is diagnosed.

So here are some much-needed facts about Alzheimer’s.

1. Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging, but the chances of getting it greatly increase with age. As Russell writes:

“Alzheimer’s disease is practically unheard of in adults younger than 40, and very rare (one in 2,500) for those under 60. It affects 1 percent of 65-year-olds, 2 percent of 68-year-olds, 3 percent of 70-year-olds. After that, the odds start multiplying. The likelihood of your developing Alzheimer’s more or less doubles every five years past 65. Should you make it to 85, you will have, roughly, a fifty-fifty shot at remaining sane.”

2. Eleven million Americans take care of relatives who have dementia at home. “The first two-thirds of the disease’s arc are grueling if manageable,” Russell writes. “But then your loved one stops speaking, eating, or recognizing sound. You strain after them, but there’s as much ‘loved one’ in your loved one as there is ocean in a conch shell.”

3. Dementia caregivers struggle disproportionately with depression. They die at a 63 percent higher rate than their same-age peers who do not have this burden.

4. Cost of living in a special home for people with Alzheimer’s: $219 per day. $80,000 per year, Russell estimates.

5. There’s no known cause of or cure for Alzheimer's. Some say that ongoing intellectual and physical stimulation throughout adult life is the best hedge against Alzheimer’s, but there is no definitive proof of that. It’s a good idea to be engaged in activities that make you think and get your exercise no matter what.

6. Researchers have found no evidence for the following theoretical causes of Alzheimer’s: cooking in or drinking out of aluminum containers, aspartame, flu shots and silver dental fillings.

7. Scientists are still researching the possible connection between Alzheimer's and air pollution. And recently an increased risk of Alzheimer's has been found among people who take commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications including Xanax, Ativan, Valium and Klonopin long-term. This class of drugs is called benzodiazepines, and they are habit forming and dangerous to halt abruptly. (Speak to your doctor if you take these medications.) 

8. Because people with Alzheimer’s may say things that make no sense, their caregivers must learn to translate. Russell writes:

"If out of nowhere his old man whimpers, 'I don’t want to die!' Then he probably means, 'I feel sick, though I don’t feel pain. I feel this way all the time, so I must be dying.'

"If he ransacks the apartment one day before dawn, accusing: 'You! You stole my money, you son of a bitch!' Then he most likely wants to say, 'I used to carry a wallet. I used to be able to support myself. I’ve become shamefully dependent, and I don’t understand how.'

"If he grows as taut as a string before it snaps, and mentions 'home,' then he might be thinking, 'I wish I could return to the time when I had a past, and an identity, and a purpose, and a place.'"

9. Alzheimer’s care guides all advise looking into eldercare facilities the moment you suspect a relative may have it, since the good ones fill up and have long waiting lists. The world's most state-of-the-art, pioneering Alzheimer's facility is called Hogewey outside of Amsterdam. It is set up like a small village filled with, as Russell says, "mute, smiling seniors."

10. Alzheimer’s is always fatal. No one has ever emerged from the other side of the disease to tell the tale.

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