Alzheimer’s, A Conversation

This morning on my radio show, we aired my interview with Dr. Sharon Brangman, geriatrician and expert in Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias. As the daughter of a mother who is in the advanced stages of this horrible disease, I was moved to tears by the conversation. It was an opportunity to learn more about it, and even ended with a bit of hope. Here are some points from the conversation — a few basics, and some information that was new to me, too.

  • The numbers of victims are increasing exponentially, mostly because people are living longer, and because of the growing numbers of baby boomers.
  • Dr. Alzheimer was the person who distinguished “his” disease from other forms of dementia — about 65 years ago. The former term was “hardening of the arteries.”
  • How do we know the difference between forgetfulness and the onset of dementia? If the non-remembering begins to get in the way of life, then it may be dementia, including Alzheimer’s. When we can’t remember how to do something we’ve always done, or can’t remember names of people we see frequently, or forget to take our medications consistently, or anything that becomes an interference with everyday living.
  • Caretakers need almost as much care as the actual Alzheimer’s patient. (My opinion: perhaps the patients are patients, and the caretakers and families are the real “victims.”)
  • Dr. Brangman’s metaphor for the physiology of how Alzheimer’s works: think of the brain as a highway system of thought patterns. A protein begins to build and gunks up the highway, putting roadblocks in front of the thought patterns so they can’t be used.
  • There are a handful of dementias — Alzheimers is most prominent, but not all have the same physiology and some are treated differently. It’s important for doctors to discern which dementia is causing problems so it can be treated most effectively.
  • Research shows that people who continually use and challenge their brains may keep Alzheimer’s at bay — and taking the above metaphor another step — it’s because the brain develops more highways for the transport of ideas when it is being used and challenged. With more highways available, the protein does not so easily block the passage of thoughts.
  • Studies about the effect of music on Alzheimer’s patients have shown that familiar music elevates a patient’s mood and brain function. Dr. Brangman hypothesized that it’s because music thoughts are stored in so many areas of the brain, that there are enough of those above-mentioned highways available to translate the thoughts.
  • On the horizon: research that will help develop therapies that will regrow nerve growth cells, and/or repair or dissolve the problems caused by that gummy, gunky protein that develops in the brain.

How do we keep Alzheimer’s at bay in our younger years? Eat right, exercise, don’t smoke… all those good practices that seem to be the answer for keeping any health-related problem out of our lives.

End of post for today. I’m going to go eat a salad and walk a few miles. Then I’m going to call Mom to tell her I love her.

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Trisha Torrey
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