WASHINGTON – Alzheimer’s patients need to be identified and diagnosed at an earlier stage so that they can receive better treatment, an Owings Mills woman told senators on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
Marilyn Blum is a caregiver for her husband, Steve, who has suffered with Alzheimer’s since he was diagnosed with the disease at age 60.
She testified in support of two bills sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., to provide more money for Alzheimer’s research and tax assistance to families caring for family members with a chronic health condition.
“This disease is like nothing you’ve ever experienced,” said Blum. “You can’t use your normal coping skills in dealing with your loved ones because they’re not the same person they used to be.”
Steve’s memory problems began during his career as an accountant. He began answering questions about money incorrectly, and got lost in familiar places, Blum told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension’s Subcommittee on Retirement Security and Aging.
Steve was laid off from his job, and an internist diagnosed him with depression, despite the couple’s concerns that Steve’s father had been diagnosed early with dementia.
After Steve was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the disease progressed, Blum and her husband faced financial hardships and social isolation. With support from the local Alzheimer’s Association, they befriended and worked with others in the same situation. Steve now volunteers at a day care center five days a week.
“Alzheimer’s is like a continuous disease,” said Mikulski, whose father suffered from Alzheimer’s. “You don’t catch it . . . it evolves.”
The baby boomer generation is the next target for this cognitive disorder that afflicts 1 out of 8 people age 65 and older, and nearly half of those 85 or older, according to research by the Alzheimer’s Association.
One of Mikulski’s bills would double funding for Alzheimer’s research at the National Institutes of Health from $640 million to $1.3 billion, and the other would create a $3,000 tax credit for families to help pay for care through prescription drugs, home health care and special day care.
The challenges for those with Alzheimer’s are just as difficult, and often even more so, for those who care for them.
Cass Naugle of Mt. Airy, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s greater Maryland chapter, watched Blum testify at the hearing along with 40 or 50 others wearing the association’s purple sashes.
Naugle worked for years as an Alzheimer’s research professional before her mother was diagnosed. The day-to-day needs of her mother made it impossible for Naugle to grieve her mother’s affliction, she said.
She learned something was wrong when her mother began taking money out of the bank several times a day. Naugle’s mother also suffered from osteoporosis, leading her to repeatedly fall down.
The experience was very humbling for Naugle, who faced new difficulties each day before her mother died in fall of 2005, such as taking control of her parents’ finances and taking their car keys away from them.
As a professional whose experience became personal, Naugle said, “I listen better. I understand better. When I tell a story . . . I can tell it from my heart, and empathize with the collective grief that all Alzheimer’s caregivers suffer.”
She came to depend on her own staff at the association, the support of which Blum also found to be valuable in dealing with the stress.
“Doctors can help deal with the medical aspects of Alzheimer’s, but you can’t call them at 11 p.m. when your husband is agitated and yelling at you because he can’t remember where he put the television remote,” said Blum.
Maryland’s population of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is expected to go up 10 percent by 2010, from 78,000 to 86,000, according to an Alzheimer’s Association report.
In 2003, 865 deaths in Maryland were due to Alzheimer’s, according to reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The FDA has approved five drugs that temporarily reduce worsening of Alzheimer’s symptoms, according to the association, but no treatment exists that can delay or stop the deterioration of brain cells.
Exercise, diet and social engagement are lifestyle changes that may help reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, said Marilyn Albert, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Baltimore.
Research also suggests that there are links between cardiovascular risk and Alzheimer’s, as well, said Albert, and physical activity is also beneficial for the brain and preventing the onset of the disorder.
– 30 – CNS-3-20-07