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Dementia 101

Mar 5, 2021

My Father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease several years ago.  At the moment, he is doing okay. His medications seem to have slowed down the progression of the disease. He lives at home with my Mother and is able to help her around the house and play with the dogs. He has lost interest in TV, movies and reading as he cannot remember what is happening in the story. If given a little while to practice, he still plays a mean game of gin rummy. He still knows who I am. 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org), there are currently 50 million people with Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias. It is estimated that the number of people living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias has increased 16% since the onset of the pandemic.  Alzheimer’s alone kills more people than breast and prostate cancers combined.  It is estimated that the combined cost of Alzheimer’s and other dementias will be $355 billion in 2021.  By 2050, the annual cost could be $1.1 trillion.

Alzheimer’s Disease was first described by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906.  A patient known only as Auguste D. had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1901 with memory loss, paranoia, and psychological changes. Upon Auguste D.’s death, Dr. Alzheimer noted in the autopsy that there was shrinkage in and around nerve cells in her brain. In addition, he found the presence of what we now recognize as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles—major factors in the research that followed in the quest to understand Alzheimer’s.

Research continued through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In 1983, November was declared the National Alzheimer’s Disease Month by President Ronald Reagan. In 1984, the National Institute on Aging began to fund Alzheimer’s Disease Centers and established a nationwide network for Alzheimer’s research. In 1993, the Food & Drug Administration approved the first Alzheimer’s drug, which targeted memory loss and dementia symptoms.

In 1994, six years after the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan announced that he was “one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.” He said that his public disclosure was intended to raise public awareness about the disease. 

Almost twenty years later, country singer and guitarist, Glen Campbell, announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He traveled across the U.S. on a “Goodbye Tour,” which concluded in Napa, California, and was made into a documentary film “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.” This film helped raise public awareness with its intimate window into the world of a family dealing with the disease.

In 2020, a documentary movie—Robin’s Wish—was released about Robin Williams’ illness and death. Unknown to many of us, Robin Williams was living with Lewy body dementia for the last few years of his life. This documentary showed the impact on his life and the lives of his family and friends from this dementia.

Research is continuing all over the world—looking for more effective treatment options of the symptoms.  But, maybe more important, research is attempting to discover how to prevent Alzheimer’s and other dementias or to stop the damage they cause.  Every new breakthrough brings us closer to these goals.

Until we are able to halt the devastation of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias, it is important to remember the people impacted.  Communities can take steps to make our world more welcoming to a person with dementia. Several North Shore communities have initiated age-friendly and/or dementia-friendly movements with this mission.

Dementia Friendly Massachusetts, an initiative of the Massachusetts Councils on Aging, is a state-wide grassroots movement. Their website, www.dfmassachusetts.org, is an excellent resource to learn what is being done throughout Massachusetts to make our communities more accessible and friendly to people living with dementia and their caregivers.

Age & Dementia Friendly Cape Ann, an initiative of SeniorCare and the four communities of Cape Ann, is working to better meet the needs of residents of all ages.  For more information about the Age & Dementia Friendly Cape Ann initiative, go to www.adfca.org.