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Alzheimer's Advances: Research and living with the disease

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - 11:25pm

EL PASO -  It's common to forget things from time to time, but as people age forgetting things often can be early signs of a much more serious problem.

More than 5.4 million American's suffer from Alzheimer's Disease. Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and the only cause of death among the top 10 in the country that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.

"The first thing we do is talk to the patient and his family," said Dr. Luis Acosta and El Paso neurologist. "It's very important to have some relatives in the first visit."

Dr. Acosta has been a neurologist for more than thirty years. He has diagnosed countless patients with Alzheimer's and stresses the importance of family, not only in the diagnosis of the disease, but as the disease progresses.

"I am absolutely convinced that it's not just the medicines," Acosta said. "It's the medicines plus the family."

El Pasoan Dean Royalty's wife Jean, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in the mid to late 1990's. The couple had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

They were planning on spending their retirement travelling, golfing, and visiting family. Jean's diagnosis changed those plans.

"That was a really devastating blow to her, she almost felt like she wanted to die," Royalty said.

Dean became the primary caregiver, taking care of his wife for eight years. He witnessed first hand just how crippling the disease was, even for routine daily activities.

He remembers the day his wife went to get her hair done and didn't return home for hours.

"Finally we found her over at the department store and she was buying a lot of clothes," Royalty said. "I had to finally take the keys away because it wasn't a good idea for her to be driving."

Alzheimer's can confuse a person as to where they are or what they are doing, stealing the person's independence and robbing them of who they are.

"Since we don't have a cure, the medicines we use are to delay the unavoidable loss of cognitive function," said Dr. Acosta. "A patient will be 100 percent dependent 24 hours of the day."

There is promising research for medications that will hopefully slow the progression, and in time with more studies, put an end to the crippling disease.

One of the latest advancements comes in the form of diagnosis.

"There was the approval from the FDA of a new imaging agent that is designed to measure amyloid in the brain," said Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer's Association.

High levels of amyloid plaque are typically found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's.

The new imaging agent uses a dye that flares up during a scan to determine how much plaque is between the brain's nerve cells.

Dr. Thies believes this new method will help track the progression of Alzheimer's, and will help rule out those who don't have the disease.

El Paso Alzheimer's Association Director Denese Watkins said support groups can help both patients and caregivers better cope with the disease.

"There's a lot of fear to the disease," Watkins said. "Just think about if you were in a different country and everybody was speaking a different language and you couldn't catch what's going on."

Dr. Acosta said that's why patients isolate themselves from family and other social activities. He said they feel embarrassed and would rather spend their time alone.

Acosta said that's the opposite thing to do in trying to slow the progression of the disease.

"I am absolutely convinced that it's not just the medicines, it's the medicines plus the family," Acosta said.

Eventually the disease is so advanced it becomes too much for the caregiver to handle alone. In most cases the person will end up in a nursing home or foster care.

Royalty had to put his wife in foster care after his daughters convinced him it was for the best. Something he said was one of the most difficult things he's ever had to do in his life.

"I had a guilt trip that wouldn't stop," said Royalty. "I didn't like it all because everything changed, she wasn't there anymore."
Royalty's wife passed away in 2005. He now spends most of his time advocating for more research and speaking at support groups about his experience in hopes of helping others.

He has faith the research will eventually lead to a cure, so others won't have to experience what he went through.

"I had lost her before she really expired and fell asleep, but I always look forward to the return because I believe we will see her again," Royalty said.

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Warning Signs:

1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems.
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.
4. Confusion with time or place.
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing.
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
8. Decreased or poor judgment. 
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities.
10. Changes in mood and personality.



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