Dealing with Dementia

by Jon Schwartz February 27, 2017


aging-marchWith this column, I typically aim to inspire a positive approach to aging, to imbue a sense of optimism and vigor. I was gearing up to write a similar positive message this month but I worried that at times, I may miss some of the real fears and challenges that come with aging. Perhaps the largest fear surrounds dementia – developing it oneself or caring for a loved one who does. Solving this disease should be one of our top global initiatives as it is a growing public health crisis.

Last month I read a disappointing report that the drug company Merck halted the late-stage trial of its promising Alzheimer’s drug Verubecestat, after an independent study found that it had “virtually no chance” of working. Unfortunately, this news comes just three months after Eli Lilly announced that it was ending the clinical trial of its Alzheimer’s drug Solanezumab, after patients taking it demonstrated no signs of improvement compared to those taking a placebo.

No doubt, big pharmaceutical companies and other research institutions have spent billions of dollars on research and development, yet it has now been over a decade since a new drug for Alzheimer’s was made available. There is currently no treatment that has been proven to slow the impact of the disease.

What we know about Alzheimer’s disease is that risk increases with age. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, every 66 seconds someone in the United States is diagnosed with the disease. By mid-century someone will develop the disease every 33 seconds. As the population continues to push 85 and older, dementia rates will continue to rise.

Nationally, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death. More locally, and since 2008, the San Diego Health and Human Service Agency has ranked Alzheimer’s as the third leading cause of death county wide.

Even with these grim statistics and projections, there is some cause for hope. In 2016, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the rates of dementia have fallen sharply in recent years, most likely as a result of Americans’ rising education levels, better heart health and improved management of diabetes which are all closely related to brain health. This study is consistent with others that show rates (not total cases) are on the decline in the U.S. and Europe.

While two well-established risk factors for Alzheimer’s are genetics and aging, “there is hope that adopting healthy brain habits might delay or prevent the appearance of Alzheimer’s disease,” the Alzheimer’s Association says. Here are some tips:

Stay physically active to maintain good blood flow to the brain and encourage new brain cells.

Eat a “brain-healthy diet” low in fat and cholesterol.

Stay social to reduce stress levels and maintain healthy brain cell connections.

Stay mentally active to strengthen brain cells and the connections between them.

In the early 1950s our national plan for Polio was grim. A cure did not seem attainable in the near future. Therefore, our plan was to build more iron lung machines and hospital floors to put people in. Thankfully by the late 1950s a treatment was available. There is reason to believe this will happen with dementia, too. There are many brilliant, well-intentioned and well-funded scientists working toward a new treatment.  However, until this comes to fruition, our national plan is to build more memory care communities. History has a way of repeating itself.

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