We're at the beginning of the era of "curing" Alzheimer's
disease. No more slipping into oblivion. No more loss of dignity. One
day – not too long from now – degenerative cognitive conditions
will be as manageable as high blood pressure, a disease that requires
vigilance to keep at bay but doesn't rob you of your quality of life.
We can now use simple memory tests to identify candidates for treatment
before cognitive function is impaired. We have treatment options in clinical
trials that appear to remove the "gunk" that leads to Alzheimer's.
And we have a kind of "use it or lose it" cognitive treatment
model of preventing dementia entirely or greatly delaying it.
The key is early diagnosis.
People don't like to talk about dementia. Many take the "I would
rather not know" approach to cognitive diseases. That is because
dementia is terrifying to the patient and painful to family members who
can do little but watch a loved one's decline.
The world saw evidence of this last year, when comedian Robin Williams
took his own life. Williams was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, which
affects 1.4 million people and is the second most common type of progressive
dementia after Alzheimer's. LBD leads to hallucinations, depression
and delusions; it is not uncommon for sufferers to commit suicide.
If every person over the age of 50 underwent an annual memory screen, we
would have a chance at preventing dementia entirely or greatly delaying
it from claiming more brilliant minds.
Hoag's Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program, as well as doctors
who have gone through its training, can provide an annual memory screen,
depression screen and risk assessment to help manage your risks and identify
signs of dementia early. Sophisticated technology can also help detect
harmful proteins in the brain associated with dementia.
If you are at risk, several experimental treatment options now exist including
intravenous immunoglobulin, or antibodies that remove the molecules that
cause Alzheimer's disease.
But it is not the only medical intervention out there. And a powerful non-medical
treatment is also readily available to anyone willing to take advantage
of it: Learning.
The phrase "use it or lose it," as it turns out, is as applicable
to the brain as it is to any other muscle in the body. Stimulating the
brain builds new synapses, or connections, that help counteract the disease process.
Given the severity of dementia, it is amazing to think that the answer
might reside in blood products and art classes. But we will never know
for sure, if we continue to pretend that the problem isn't there.
So please don't get scared – get screened.
Dr. William R. Shankle is the Judy & Richard Voltmer endowed chair in Memory and Cognitive
Disorders at Hoag Neurosciences Institute.