When former President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer's Awareness month in 1983, roughly 2 million Americans had the fatal brain-wasting disease. Today, 15 years after Mr. Reagan himself was diagnosed with it, and five years after his death, more than 5 million Americans are struggling with Alzheimer's. The number of victims and the cost of their extended care are expected to increase. Experts say raising awareness about Alzheimer's is a key to winning the fight against this disease.
Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia. It attacks the brain's nerve cells, robs memory and impairs thinking and language skills. It's currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
"Every 70 seconds, somebody is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease," says Michael Reagan, popular radio talk show host and son of former President Ronald Reagan, probably the most famous victim of Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer's as a family affair
Reagan says almost from the time his father first learned he was ill, he has been part of a national campaign to raise public awareness about this devastating and heartbreaking illness.
"Joining the efforts is like I've been in this for a long time, as my father wrote a letter back in 1994 telling the world he had Alzheimer's disease, watching what my father went through as he deteriorated year after year after, and finally being bedridden, and then passing away 5 years ago [in 2004]," he says. He adds, "That's why I'm involved."
Watching a loved one fade away, Reagan says, is a uniquely painful experience to watch.
"Seeing him [going] from riding a horse to being at home sitting in a chair, where all that he can do is [play with] puzzles - first 500-piece puzzles, then 200-piece puzzles and then 100-piece puzzles; watching my children Cameron and Ashley doing children's picture books with their grandfather. And seeing the devastating effect it has not only on the person who has it, but also on the family."
Michael Reagan says not to hide from Alzheimer's
Michael Reagan encourages people who have the disease and those who are looking after them to be proactive about seeking care.
"Families, you have to come out from behind the curtains and admit, like my father admitted in 1994, that the disease is in the family," he says. "Don't hide a loved one. Be honest with your friends. Be honest with your family. You can't hide from it. It's there. If you don't talk about it, and get involved, you may get it. What you need to say is what can I do to help? Try to get people, your family members into the clinical trials, going to clinicaltrials.gov and see a trial that best fits your family member or a friend and get them in because if we don't get people into these trials, we're not going to have a cure in the future."
Clinical trials need participants
Neurologist Marwan Sabbagh, director of clinical research at Banner Sun Health in Sun City, Arizona, agrees with Reagan. He says research centers around the country are always looking for Alzheimer's patients willing to try new treatments.
"There are many trials going on now," he says. "We're actually looking at new drugs both to improve symptoms, but also to modify the disease, essentially to slow the progression. There are so many trials going on, but it is imperative that people participate," Sabbagh says.
Although no cure has been discovered yet, Dr. Sabbagh says significant progress has been made in understanding and managing the disease.
"Back 15 years ago, we didn't have really any treatment for Alzheimer's disease," he explains. "We now have about four or five prescription drugs we use to commonly treat Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, there are 75 clinical trials going on right now in the United States, with another 200 drugs in development behind that," he says.
One disease with several strategies to treat it
Thanks to some of these new treatment strategies, Dr. David Crumpacker, a Texas psychiatrist who specializes in the illness, says it has become possible to slow the advancement of Alzheimer's. He adds people should know more about the disease so they can recognize its early symptoms including short term memory problems.
"Perhaps getting lost in neighborhoods where your loved one has lived for a number of years," he says is one example. "But Alzheimer's affects a number of [other] spheres as well, including language, someone's ability to participate in conversation[and]following conversations," Crumpacker says. He adds that current treatments focus on improving memory, language capabilities and the ability to participate in family activities to put some enjoyment back into lives.
Taking steps to prevent Alzheimer's disease
Raising awareness may also help some people prevent the onset of Alzheimer's. Michael Reagan says he tries to maintain a healthy lifestyle, hoping it will reduce his chances of getting the disease.
"I go to the gym," he says. Michael Reagan says that while following a healthy diet, reading and learning new skills can help sharpen one's memory and possibly prevent or slow the advance of the illness, the most effective way to fight Alzheimer's is to volunteer and support funding for current research. Reagan hopes that someday it will be possible to change the status of Alzheimer's from the lethal condition that destroyed his father's mind, to a chronic disease that victims and their families can manage with dignity and even hope.