My concentration on the fast and furious morning traffic travelling North on I-35 between Waco and Hillsboro was suddenly broken when I heard on the radio about a study aimed at finding clues to the earliest beginnings of Alzheimer’s.
The report went on to explain in detail how a consortium of research institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health was adopting a novel approach by avoiding to repeat the failed attempts of the past decades “to go right to the cure without really understanding the brain and what actually goes wrong that leads to dementias.” Genetic information will be used to classify brain cells to, among other things, identify those that become abnormal long before symptoms of the disease start to appear.
The whole project represents an extraordinary allocation of resources, human and material, dedicated not to curing, but to understanding the origin of a disease that, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2020 Report, is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia according to the same report. Pure science, basic research at their best. Eventually, is everyone’s hope, a drug will be developed to ameliorate, cure, or altogether prevent Alzheimer’s.
In the meantime, millions of Americans experience the disease in a whole different light: at home. For them, for us, things begin not in the cells of the brain, but with subtle manifestations that by omission or by decision, are overlooked until the inescapable truth becomes more and more evident.
An innocent inability to remember names or the frequent misplacing of objects become more recurring. Any type of planning turns into frustratingly impossible tasks. Over time, assistance managing appointments, medicines, and money is necessary. This in turn adds stress to an already confusing and understandably unacceptable situation.
In its moderate stage, Alzheimer’s affects long term memory and the ability to handle simple daily activities such as dressing, eating, bathing, and others. Communicating is ever more problematic. Agitation, irritability, confusion, and evening anxiety, also known as sundowning are increasingly common as are depression, aggression and wandering.
The next stage is characterized by a severe decline in cognitive functioning. Full-time care is required as medical issues related to nourishment, skin conditions, infections, and pain are more prevalent.
Until science delivers, the marching orders of the day for those affected by Alzheimer’s will continue to be patience, understanding, and compassion. As the gallant, old body of a loved one gets inhabited by the new mind of an unrecognizable person, the question remains: where to get the strength to properly care in the absence of a cure? After all, the calls and clamor of an Alzheimer’s patient can’t be turned off as one can turn off the radio in a car.
The Discretely column by Eduardo Berdegué is published monthly in newspapers throughout the Heart of Texas region.