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And Now, the Alzheimer's 'Cocktail'

Self-help: More people are turning to a combination of vitamins and drugs to ward off the disease. But doctors worry about the perils of self-medication.

April 26, 1999|ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Shellie Brassler, 47, has a simple goal: to reach age 49 and be able to remember the birthday party that her friends and family will throw for her. Her father wasn't so lucky. He was a victim of Alzheimer's disease at 49, passing the next 24 years of his life in a painful, blank state.

"I take a handful of pills. I religiously take them and hope and pray it makes a difference," said Brassler, a resident of Geneva, a suburb of Orlando, Fla.

She is among a growing number of Americans who hope to ward off Alzheimer's disease by taking preventive "cocktails," combinations of vitamins, estrogen and anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil.

Refusing to wait for hard evidence from the deliberate pace of drug trials or for the scientific breakthrough that might come from gene therapy, people like Brassler are seizing on every hopeful preliminary finding to write their own prescriptions for keeping memories intact.

Doctors are sympathetic to their sense of urgency but concerned about the potential perils of self-medication. Vitamin E is a frequent ingredient for those hoping to ward off Alzheimer's, and doctors see little risk--though no sure cure--in its use. But anti-inflammatory drugs can cause ulcers, and estrogen can raise the risk of cancer.

"The safe answer is that there is insufficient evidence to make a recommendation," said Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, who runs the Alzheimer's research and treatment unit at UCLA.

With the majority of baby boomers now in their 40s and 50s, the trend toward self-doctoring is in full swing. Already, their demands have made this an age of 10,000 Web sites and Internet chat rooms on health, libraries filled with self-help books, and television commercials urging consumers to pester their doctors for particular drugs.

There is a special temptation to self-medicate as a preventive strategy against Alzheimer's, because the devastating disease is so mysterious. It has no known cure and may not strike for decades. It destroys in stages the memory of the victim, the ability to think and live independently and wreaks havoc on family members and loved ones trying to care for the patient. The physical body can last for years, hale and hearty, even after the mind is gone.

Unlike heart disease, where diet and exercise are proven preventatives, there is no way to stop Alzheimer's. So those who fear its deadly impact are seizing on a fistful of vitamins and drugs, taken in hopes of beating the odds.

For those in families where Alzheimer's strikes early--in the 30s, 40s and 50s--dooming victims to decades of additional life without memory or cognition, the urge to do something--anything--is even greater.

This "early onset" group, families such as Shellie Brassler's, accounts for just 1% or 2% of everyone who gets Alzheimer's, but the impact is particularly devastating because it happens at an early age, and many members of a family can become victims.

Perhaps the families of "early onset victims" are like the advance patrols of an army, venturing into dangerous territory years before large numbers of their baby boom contemporaries will witness the disease's devastating progression or feel the burden of being caregivers.

Alzheimer's has become a distressingly frequent plague as more and more people live to advanced old age. The incidence of the disease is just 1% at age 60, but it doubles every five years. And by age 85, as much as 40% of the population may suffer from Alzheimer's or another form of dementia.

There are about 4 million people with Alzheimer's disease and other memory-destroying dementias in today's U.S. population, which includes 34 million people over the age of 65.

Alzheimer's Population Could Swell to 14 Million

With 76 million Americans in the baby boom generation--those born in the years 1946 through 1964--the incidence of Alzheimer's could explode as better health care and new technology swells the ranks of those living to 80 and beyond. The Alzheimer's population could reach 14 million in the next 30 or 40 years, experts say.

The Alzheimer's cocktail is a joking phrase among the advocates rather than a literal description of what they consume.

"There is no blue martini-looking drink," said Brassler, an activist who founded and directs the Alzheimer Resource Center in Orlando, which provides advice and counseling for families and caregivers.

Instead of a unique cocktail, each person has a personal version of pills, compounds and extracts he or she hopes will ward off the dread disease. There is a broad selection: vitamins (A, C, and E), anti-inflammatory products often taken by arthritis victims (aspirin and ibuprofen), and ginkgo biloba, an herbal supplement. In addition, women can take estrogen, a hormone usually prescribed for menopausal women to prevent osteoporosis and heart disease.

Brassler takes daily doses of vitamins A, C and E and estrogen as part of a hormone replacement regimen.

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