Alzheimer’s: more hope, resources
As people live longer, we know that the chance of acquiring Alzheimer’s disease increases. But over time, progress has been made and patients and families have more support and tools at their disposal to help them, say experts who have been working in the field for more than a quarter of a century.
“Now we talk about people at risk,” says Dr. Serge Gauthier, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit of the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging. “We’re looking at earlier and more accurate diagnosis, symptomatic treatment medications and in the future, prevention strategies for people at higher risk and the public at large.”
These include social networking, keeping your brain and your mind busy, regular physical and mental exercise, healthy eating, and small amounts of red wine. “It’s been long known that if you prevent strokes, you will delay Alzheimer’s.” However, Alzheimer’s involves a blend of factors that vary in individuals and Gauthier warns we will not get a “magic” pill anytime soon. “It’s not realistic that one pill will cure Alzheimer’s in everyone.”
However, there are four medications, administered earlier and combined as needed as the disease progresses, that can significantly slow the course of the illness, Gauthier says.
Though improved brain imaging techniques allow researchers to detect the neurological changes indicating Alzheimer’s, Gauthier says that it is possible to manifest these changes without physical symptoms.
“Over age 90, many people at autopsy have all these physical changes but no symptoms. Clinically, one out of four people over 85 will have symptoms. We are equally interested in the three without symptoms. At McGill we have a new centre for prevention for people who are concerned. They can join a program of physical and mental exercise, cognitive training and diet.”
Marva Whyte, director of support services at the Alzheimer Groupe agrees that huge strides have been made in the field. “The whole language around Alzheimer’s has changed,” Whyte says.
“We used to talk about victims, but not so much about the person behind the disease. The disease used to define the person. Now we look at the person and how the disease has affected them and what kinds of programs and activities will be of most benefit.”
The care provided is now individualized, Whyte says, with the person’s strengths, which are still present though the disease has progressed, being used as a springboard for managing the condition.
The Internet has been a boon for families who are touched by Alzheimer’s, Whyte says. While they may need help sorting through the avalanche of online info, they know there is something to be done. There are support services for the caregivers as well.
“The outlook is better and the families do not feel so alone.”