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On Aging

Rage Against Alzheimer's Bears Fruit

December 29, 1985| UCLA/USC Long Term Care Gerontology Center

Attorney Marc Hankin's father died last week. He suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Hankin had long ago been robbed of his father and sadly watched this once-vital man deteriorate.

While Hankin could do nothing to change his father's fate, he focused his legal career on helping families of Alzheimer's disease victims with important legislation in California.

After several years of turning her anger and despair inward, Marion Roch, the daughter of another Alzheimer's disease victim, went public in a compelling new book, "Another Name for Madness." The book traces two young sisters' struggle to care for their mother, who at age 51 began to suffer from Alzheimer's.

Roach brings you to her home in Queens, where the story unfolds. You want to believe that her mother is going to get better, that all the care, love, support and restructuring of the environment will make a difference.

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease. Family members become victims themselves, thinking they deserve what they're getting and frightened that a similar fate awaits them. They often become ashamed of their parent for his or her behavior, speech and appearance, and angry because they don't have a healthy spouse, mother or father anymore.

Marion Roach and Marc Hankin have taken their rage and turned it toward helping others, Hankin through legislation to help spouses and Roach through an engrossing narrative about her family's effort to cope with what is being called an epidemic.

Question: My next-door neighbors are in their early 60s. He was a bright accountant, well-known and respected. Now he has Alzheimer's disease and the transition that has occurred in this once-healthy man is frightening. He is like a child in a man's body. What causes this disease?

Answer: Alzheimer's disease is a disorder of the brain associated with excessive loss of brain cells. Victims experience a gradual loss of memory and gradually undergo changes in personality, eventually losing all other mental and most physical capabilities. According to the National Institute on Aging, the disease affects 2 million to 2.5 million middle-aged and older Americans and the cause is unknown.

Alzheimer's disease affects groups of nerve endings in the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) that degenerate and disrupt the passage of electrochemical signals between the cells. The focal areas of degeneration are called plaques. Changes also occur in the nerve cells of the cortex that lead to an accumulation of abnormal substances called neuro-fibrillary tangles. The more plaques and tangles, the greater the disturbance in intellectual function and memory.

The changes in the brain are not caused by hardening of the arteries and there is no evidence that the disease is contagious. Emotional upsets and stress may temporarily affect the person's mood and behavior, but they don't cause the disorder.

Two percent to 3% of people older than 60 are victims of Alzheimer's disease. Within the same family, there may be an additional increase in its occurrence, as much as 5%. This may represent a slight hereditary disposition or an undetermined environmental factor, although the disease usually doesn't strike more than one family member.

Q: My husband's aunt has Alzheimer's disease that's getting progressively worse. The situation has the whole family in a tizzy. I know there's no cure, but can't something be done?

A: There is presently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but supportive care can relieve many of the symptoms, and victims and their families can be helped to cope with the disorder.

It is important that your husband's aunt have a physician closely monitor her treatment and answer questions that she or family members have. Tranquilizers can lessen agitation, anxiety and unpredictable behavior. Medication can also be prescribed to treat depression and improve sleeping patterns. A well-balanced diet and fluid intake are important; alcohol should be avoided because it may add to her confusion.

It is best that her activity level be as normal as possible, and a daily routine, physical activities and social contacts be encouraged. Physical therapy can be of value if difficulties arise in physical functioning. The use of memory aids such as a prominent calendar, lists of daily tasks, written reminders about routine safety measures, and directions to and labeling of frequently used items may be helpful. Although it is best to maintain an ordered environment so that she doesn't have to learn new things, it is important not to restrict her from trying a new activity.

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