According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “more than 5 million people are currently living with Alzheimer’s.” I grew up watching my grandfather suffer from the disease, and my brother, mother and I are full-time caregivers for my grandma who currently has Alzheimer’s. This horrific disease which has caused my grandmother to forget who her family is, which decade she lives in, the ability to control her bladder and has caused her to become combative and refuse to eat and take medication is not only a part of my life, but the family of the five million people suffering with Alzheimer’s. I recently approached the American Osteopathic Association about interviewing one of their esteemed physicians to discuss what I had hoped to hear, and that progress was being made in the fight against this disease. Unfortunately the fight against Alzheimer’s is stagnant, more work needs to be done and more attention needs to be brought to the forefront so progress can be made.
I applaud actor/comedian Seth Rogen for going before the senate this week to discuss the battle his mother-in-law is currently fighting with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He finally gave me the courage to step up and discuss how this disease affected me as a child, and that I am currently going through as an adult. I am greatly appreciative of the AOA and Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO (of Lansing, Michigan) for the great interview on the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, research and treatment options, caregiver burnout and much more.
How Dementia and Alzheimer’s Differ
Candace Rose Anderson: We hear so much about Alzheimer’s and dementia. How do they differ?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “Dementia is the general term that describes the condition of memory loss, decreased function, etc. Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia. I usually try to make an analogy. Think of dementia in terms of automobiles. It is a car but doesn’t say which type of car. Is it a Chevy, a Buick, Honda? That is more specific as a type of automobile. Same with dementia. It can be Alzheimer’s, but it also could be other types of Dementia, like stroke, HIV, traumatic brain injury, Lewy Body. But, Alzheimer’s is by far the most common cause of dementia.”
Common Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
Candace Rose Anderson: What are the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease? What should people or family members look out for?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “The most common symptom is forgetfulness, initially slight, then more. Forgetting appointments, names of people they know, word-finding problems, losing things, missing doses of meds, leaving the burner on the stove, getting lost driving, forgetting to pay a bill. Family should look out for changes in memory or behavior (sometimes you see a change in personality, quieter, more irritable). Look out for changes in hygiene, bathing, shaving, changing clothes. If one suspects there may be Alzheimer’s brewing, start with contacting the family physician.”
Alzheimer’s Myths and Misconceptions
Candace Rose Anderson: What are some of the most common myths and misconceptions of Alzheimer’s?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “One misconception is that forgetfulness is just normal aging, that everyone forgets as they age. True, there may be a slight change in memory as people age, but Alzheimer’s is more than that, plus it is progressive over time. Not everyone gets it. Another myth is that it is caused by a virus or by aluminum or something. The fact is that we don’t know the cause, is it a virus? Inflammation? Infection? Another myth is that one can diagnose Alzheimer’s from a brain cat scan. Not true. In fact, we can never say for sure, 100%, that someone has it while they are living. The definitive diagnosis now is from a brain biopsy. Otherwise, the best we can say is Probable Alzheimer’s.”
Alzheimer’s Alternative Treatments
Candace Rose Anderson: Are there any alternative treatment options that actually work? A lot has been said about coconut oil and Alzheimer’s lately. Can it help?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “There are many products out there purported to help control, cure, slow, Alzheimer’s disease. The fact is that none of them (except for the 4 FDA-approved pharmacologic meds) have been scientifically studied with placebo control, double-blind studies.”
Dr. Casher Talks Alzheimer’s Research
Candace Rose Anderson: Are you seeing any advancement in research?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “Research seems to be slow. As far as I know, there is nothing great on the Horizon for treatment. There has been some progress in tests to help diagnose the disease.”
How To Reduce Your Risk
Candace Rose Anderson: My grandfather suffered from dementia and my grandmother whom I care for has Alzheimer’s. Is there anything that my relatives and I can do to reduce our risk for getting the disease?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “Having a first degree relative with Alzheimer’s increases your risk up to 4-fold. The best risk reducers involve staying healthy. Keep your weight down, don’t drink or smoke, exercise your body and your mind, be social, upbeat. Control medical risks such as blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes. If you have had small or mini-strokes, make sure that your doctor has you on some type of blood thinner and that your carotid arteries are patent. Having more memory in reserve helps, having two parents with early-onset Alzheimer’s is a bad combination. The early-onset, prior to age 55, is more likely to be passed on and more rapidly progressive.”
Dr. Casher Talks Alzheimer’s Medication
Candace Rose Anderson: Are there any treatment options that slow the progression of dementia/Alzheimer’s? Or help patients so they aren’t so fearful or feel the need to wander?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “There are 4 approved medications at this time. There are 3 acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, such as Aricept, Exelon, and Razadyne. And there is the NMDA antagonist Namenda. Most doctors use a combination of Namenda plus one of the 3. There are other types of medications to reduce fearfulness or paranoia, but there are no anti-wandering medications available.”
Dr. Casher Talks Caregiver Burnout and Prevention
Candace Rose Anderson: I can personally attest to the fact that caregiving for an Alzheimer’s patient is very tough, especially for those of us who rarely have respite. How can we protect our health and wellbeing?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “The role of caregiver can be super-stressful. They have an extremely high risk of depression, suicide, insomnia, anxiety, and increased medical problems associated with the stress of taking care of someone. Family members need to be alert to a caregiver getting overly stressed. Then, something should be done, such as having someone else help, using respite care for the patient, having the patient enroll in a day program, or even placing the patient into assisted living. I also recommend caregiver support groups and the Alzheimer’s Association as a reference.”
Candace Rose Anderson: Do you have any additional information you would like to share with us?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “Alzheimer’s is a chronic, insidious and progressive disease that robs our memory and our identity in the process. There are no cures, but the medications do help some and are well worth using, beginning at the early stages and continuing into severe disease. Mental and Physical Stimulation and socialization are vital to helping preserve function as long as possible.”
Candace Rose Anderson: Where can we go for more information?
Dr. J. Blake Casher, DO: “For more information, one can go to Alzheimers.org. This will link you to several other useful sites.”