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Dispelling Alzheimer's myths

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Senior Market Advisor editor Daniel D. Williams spoke with Ruth Drew, director of family and information services for the Alzheimer’s Association, to dispel myths and to provide insight about the growing problem with the disease.

Williams: Let’s start by defining Alzheimer’s. What is it that the public may not know and needs to know about the disease?

Drew: First, that Alzheimer’s is a real disease. It is not normal aging. Many people age with a healthy brain and can function well into their 80s, 90s, even over 100. But, when a person has cognitive deficiencies that can be indicative of Alzheimer’s it’s important to get them diagnosed. And, if they do have Alzheimer’s, then the earlier the diagnosis, the more time they have to plan the care they’ll get. People get in a crisis mode when they do not have things planned out.

Williams: What are the most prevalent myths associated with the disease?

Drew: Many people think it’s normal aging. Certainly, it’s not. I think some people are surprised that you can die of Alzheimer’s. What often happens is a person loses the ability to walk or feed themselves in late stages. If they don’t die of something else first, then their inability to swallow properly allows fluid to build in the lungs. Since they’re not walking around and active they can get pneumonia. That is how some people die of Alzheimer’s.


Williams: Is the disease an old-age disease?

Drew: Most people think of it as an old-age disease. However, a small percentage of people, those younger than 65, are afflicted and that’s known as early onset Alzheimer’s.

Williams: What are some of the key statistics and information regarding Alzheimer’s?

Drew: It’s a very costly disease. Alzheimer’s will cost us $203 billion in 2013. Also, 1 in 3 seniors will die with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. The disease lasts very long. We’re looking at six, 10, even 20 years after the onset of symptoms. All along the way, the patient’s care needs are gradually increasing.

Williams: What have you found related to the caregiver?

Drew: Often, the spouse who is also aging cares for the patient, or an adult child cares for them while also caring for their own children. As you can imagine the stress is very high for that caregiver. It’s not just the emotional and physical toll of the person with the disease you have to worry about. Primary caregivers have told us that getting a break from giving help is life affirming, lifesaving. We’ve seen people die from giving the care. We tell people: You need help in giving care. You can’t do this alone. No one can do this alone.

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