Senior Moments or Alzheimer’s?

Linda K. Armacost, Ed.D, Secretary and Past President, La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club

“I often hear people say that a person suffering from Alzheimer’s is not the person they knew. I wonder to myself – Who are they then?” – Bob DeMarco

I have “senior moments” where I can’t remember a name or a movie or what I was just talking about. I guess we all have memory glitches from time to time, but are the glitches just symptoms of an aging brain, or the harbingers of Alzheimer’s?

Among the many diseases and conditions we worry about as we age, including cancer, heart disease, arthritis and cataracts, Alzheimer’s is the most terrifying to me. To lose one’s mind and sense of self seems to me the worst thing that can happen. And, once stricken, there is no cure, just a slow insidious slide into oblivion. There is no vaccine to prevent the disease, and no meaningful medications yet.

Now, I admit to being a worrywart, a holdover from being a mother perhaps, and now I worry about my brain. If diagnosed, I believe I would choose death with dignity and skip the pain, expense, and trauma on my loved ones. I could create an advance directive – but what if I forget that I did it? What if my family disagrees? Am I over-reacting?

I am right to worry. “An Alzheimer’s epidemic is coming. Here’s how to prepare,” warns Maria Shiver, California’s former First Lady. “Every 65 seconds in the United States a new brain develops Alzheimer’s. Two-thirds of them belong to women, and no one know why that is. For a women over 60, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s at some point in her lifetime is twice as great as that of developing breast cancer. People of color are also at a greater risk for the disease.”

What can I do? When I forget a name or movie or whatever, my first instinct is to reach for my phone and Google, but I don’t. First reason is I still haven’t figured out my new Android phone (I hate it but that’s another story) and second, I want to try to remember on my own.

There are steps I can take to help fight against Alzheimer’s:

1. Keep learning – lots of reading, researching, and writing. I could do more, like learn a foreign language.

2. Daily exercise. I do pretty well: walking, gardening, house work. I could do more.

3. Cultivate relationships. I am so lucky to know many wonderful people though the Club.

4. Go to college. I got my Ed.D at 60. I guess that counts.

5. Have hobbies. Check. Reading, gardening, trying to figure out how to get rid of Agent Orange (ok, maybe not a hobby but I spend a lot of time on it).

6. Keep a healthy weight. Check.

7. Control your health numbers. If that means blood pressure and cholesterol, good. If it means the high cost of prescriptions and dental care, screwed.

Next worry: Can I inherit Alzheimer’s? Extensive research has linked the early-onset form of Alzheimer’s to genetics. Great! No relatives with early-onset! Then, I read Dr. John Growdon, MD from Harvard who writes, “When a family member has Alzheimer’s disease, people often wonder about their own chances of developing the disease. Family history is indeed a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.”

Growdon continues, “If you have a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s, you’re more likely to develop the disease than someone who does not have a first-degree relative with this condition. Risk rises further if you have more than one first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s. But while heredity is a major factor in a small number of families, for most people, genetics seem to play only a minor role or none at all. As scientists continue to mine new research on genes associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s, though, our current understanding may shift.”

My Dad was diagnosed with senile dementia at 93. There is a razor’s edge difference between senile dementia and Alzheimer’s, and both are horrific. My mom died at 66 (a miracle really, she was sick her whole life and was not expected to live past 50) and had no mental disabilities. My future mental fitness may depend on a roll of the hereditary dice.

My worries are nothing compared to the Alzheimer’s epidemic we Californians are facing. “In California, we have more people living with Alzheimer’s than in any other state…. We talk a lot about preparing for the next huge earthquake, but Alzheimer’s is another ‘Big One’ facing California, and we just aren’t sufficiently prepared,” says Shriver. Governor Newsom has added some $3 million to support state research, and established a task force on Alzheimer’s prevention and preparedness. More preparation is needed says Shriver: “In California, the number of people with Alzheimer’s is projected to soar by nearly a third in just the next six years. California has the benefit of 10 Alzheimer’s Disease Centers, more than any other state…. And now, we also have a bold new governor who watched his father grapple with dementia is his final months”.

Federal Legislation that would provide universal healthcare is being rolled out by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.): “The Medicare for All Act of 2019 … would create a government-run single-payer health system even more generous than the current Medicare program. Her office hasn’t publicly released the details of the upcoming measure, but Democratic members told me it would cover long-term care and mental health services, two areas where Medicare coverage is sparse.”

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