Our memories are a cumulative snapshot of experiences that essentially comprise the core of our personality. They are invaluable in determining how we view ourselves in relation to others. So it is an utterly tragic loss when the juggernaut of dementia disrupts those memories by destroying the myriad connections that took a lifetime to establish. Certainly the rampant deterioration of brain functioning is immeasurably hard for those who are directly afflicted, but it is almost certainly difficult for friends and loved ones to see a once vibrant personality unravel into a pale imitation of who they used to be. I know this wholeheartedly because I count myself among the millions of family members who have watched Alzheimer’s wreak its particular breed of insidious havoc.
Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the US. About 1 in 9 Americans over the age of 65 has the disease, and that changes to 1 in 3 by age 85. Unless a cure is found, 16 million Americans are projected to be diagnosed in 2050. Suffice to say that, aside from the immense emotional toll on caregivers and family, the associated healthcare costs are in the hundreds of billions and projected to increase along with the expanding incidence. Because of the “Graying of America”, people are living longer due to medical advancements and age is the number one risk factor for the disease, along with genetic history. Such alarming facts have motivated teams of researchers to search for a cure with the aid of organizations like The Alzheimer’s Association which runs on much-needed support from donors.
Having watched my mother’s gradual decline I know how helpless it can feel. For her it was marked by some odd behaviors initially, mostly just conversational faux pas and hoarding type of behaviors, but it also progressed to the point where she wouldn’t remember much-travelled routes, simple words, or how to perform day-to-day tasks. She didn’t seem to comprehend associated risks and became one herself when she started to wander. My sister and I tried to allow her to live in the comfort of her own home as long as possible, but at a certain point you’re faced with the decision to admit your loved one to a skilled nursing facility with an Memory Care unit, which essentially means that it remains locked to prevent roaming and schedules are strictly enforced. Whenever you visit, you hope for a glimmer of recognition, but you take what you can get. My mom eventually lost the ability to vocalize, but I could occasionally discern some lightness from her eyes. I’d like to believe that she never lost her light – it certainly appeared that way to me. I count myself lucky that her behavior never became so erratic and aggressive, as I know it can for other sufferers. Maybe it was just her nerves, but I often found my mother gently laughing and/or smiling. And although I longed to have a deep, meaningful conversation with her, to let her know how much she meant to me, I settled for just being with her in the most direct and human way: I gazed into her eyes, I stroked her hair, I caressed her face, I laid with her and hugged her and would occasionally sing some Elvis for her (or put some headphones on her). She seemed to like all of that. I was operating on the assumption that fundamental basic human needs, like the need for basic acknowledgement and human touch, remain ever-present, even if one can’t necessarily make sense of them.
I mentioned earlier how helpless you can feel while you’re on the sidelines. This is why I tend to perk up whenever some journal articles come to light that suggest any kind of progression in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease. Back in the 60’s and 70’s aluminum used to be associated with the disease but has since been debunked and ruled out as an insignificant factor. More recent research out of Australia (a team from the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at the University of Queensland) has emerged to suggest that a non-invasive ultrasound technology may significantly clear the brain of neurotoxic amyloid plaques – structures that are responsible for memory loss and a decline in cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients. This research team reported full restoration of memory function in 75 percent of the tested lab mice with zero damage to the surrounding brain tissue. Other findings periodically crop up, like how cannabinoids, the substances found in marijuana or synthetic versions of them, might potentially prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Such findings often get lost amidst the political climate concerning recreational misuse, but should be certainly be given some serious scrutiny. Another study out of the University of Cincinnati suggests that anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid that acts as an antioxidant within blueberries may provide a real benefit in improving memory and cognitive function in some older adults.
Although hopeful, I take these findings with a grain of salt, or cup of blueberries, as it were. Even if we are to stumble upon something that amounts to a promising treatment, it needs to be replicated and ultimately cleared for human test trials, which can take many years. But as I’m known to tell my clients from time to time, “Hope is free”. I will continue to hold out hope that the collective brainpower of individuals dedicated to studying Alzheimer’s Disease will ensure that the brainpower of others can be prevented from diminishing.