Last week’s heartbreaking news about basketball’s winning-est coach, Pat Summitt, being diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, re-focused our attention on this terrible disease and its impact on unsuspecting victims and their families. (Please don’t misunderstand: all Alzheimer’s cases are heartbreaking. Only some get more press than others. In this case it was the legendary woman’s basketball coach from the University of Tennessee).
We have so much to learn about Alzheimer’s: Experts have yet to pinpoint its cause although researchers believe that it could result from a combination of genetic and environmental ‘risk factors.’ These could range from one’s educational level and mental health to conditions stemming from people’s dietary habits such as increased blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation has come up with the ‘top ten’ Alzheimer’s signs and symptoms, starting with memory loss and difficulty performing familiar tasks like preparing a meal or making telephone calls to changes in mood, behavior, and personality as well as loss of initiative.
Identifying Alzheimer’s cases poses major challenges. Among the most popular measures of dementia and an effective way to track changes in one’s cognitive impairment is the ‘mini-mental,’ short for the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE). While not conclusive the mini-mental enables practitioners to assess possible dementia patients with a 10-minute, 30-question tool.
What’s most breathtaking is Alzheimer’s human and financial toll. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 2011 Facts and Figures Report, states that 5.4 million Americans (one in eight older Americans) suffer from the debilitating illness. This number will increase as the baby boomer population ages.
Coach Summitt can expect to have an impressive support system, including her devoted 20 year old son, Pat. Many Alzheimer’s patients, however, may have only one caregiver saddled with a multitude of housekeeping, nursing, and personal care responsibilities. In 2011 almost 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for persons with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. It’s estimated that in 2010 they provided 17 billion hours of unpaid care, a contribution to the nation valued at more than $202 billion. Less measurable , but as tangible is the degree of stress and depression that comes with Alzheimer’s care giving.
If you know such a caregiver, you can provide a compassionate ear, an invitation to dinner or a night out, an offer to spell them. If you are such a caregiver, Alzheimer’s Association can help. See http://alzheimersassociation.org/index.asp.