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John McMillin: Alzheimer’s leaves few answers after century

John McMillin • Updated Oct 15, 2018 at 9:00 AM

There are few people that won’t be affected by Alzheimer’s, a disease first described in 1906. Just recently, one of our United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland board members suffered the death of a parent to this difficult condition. 

No, UWWUC doesn’t have any programs that directly deal with this disease, but we do have partner programs that work with people who are affected and those who are working to assist a loved one with Alzheimer’s. For those reasons, I wanted to share some things the experts have learned for those who have more questions about the disease.

Alzheimer’s is known as the most common cause of dementia or memory loss and other abilities, which interfere with daily life. Roughly 60-80 percent of dementia cases are accounted for by Alzheimer’s. As much as it’s discussed, you might think it is a normal part of aging, but it is not. Also, it isn’t restricted to those over 65. In fact, it is estimated that about 200,000 Americans younger than 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Does it get worse? Unfortunately, yes, Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. In late-stage Alzheimer’s, a person may lose the ability have a conversation and respond to the happenings around them. Believe it or not, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Although the average life span is eight years of living with this disease, patients can live up to 20 years, depending on several contributing factors.

Still, there are treatments for the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and there is a vast amount of research conducted. There isn’t a present cure, but there is hope. Currently, treatment can slow the worsening of dementia symptoms, improving the quality of life for both those suffering with the disease and those who are caregivers.

Can you prevent Alzheimer’s? There is much debate around this subject. Generally, it is agreed that physical exercise and diet may be beneficial strategy to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. It is thought that exercise may help our brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow through our brain. Of course, regular exercising also helps prevent problems with our cardio vascular system, which, in turn, contributes to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Some autopsy research demonstrates that 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also had cardiovascular disease.

Of course, there’s been a lot of news as of late that head trauma could be a strong link to future risk of Alzheimer’s, especially when a loss of consciousness has been involved. For our younger crowd, that means always wearing a helmet when participating in sports. We should all wear a seat belt when in your car, and it’s a good idea to fall-proof a home, especially for our older loved ones.

Finally, stay informed. There are more experimental and new treatments than we have the space to list in this column. The safest bet is to live as healthy as possible now and talk with your doctor regularly since early detection may slow symptoms and prepare all of us to better deal with this life-changing condition.

John McMillin is president of United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland. Email him at john@givetouwwc.org.

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