First of two parts.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and its resulting memory loss and behavior changes can be devastating for families caring for a loved one with the disease. There is no cure. Treatments are few and expensive.
That’s why the launch of a national plan to address Alzheimer’s is encouraging. Maine is poised to benefit from the treatment and prevention research, particularly considering it has the oldest median age in the country, high rates of chronic disease and a rural makeup that makes it more difficult to access services.
Many different private and public sector organizations will be involved in research and developing options for caregivers as part of the national plan revealed recently by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mainers can and should be part of it by encouraging eligible people to participate in clinical trials.
Rarely are there direct benefits for those in a clinical trial, but it’s a way to help the next person. Having more people enrolled in trials is essential for the development of treatments.
The first steps of the National Alzheimer’s Plan call for trials to find effective ways to prevent or treat the disease by 2025 and improve the care of those living with it. Experts predict that the number of people with Alzheimer’s will double in the next 40 years and health care costs will skyrocket if effective treatments are not found.
Starting immediately, the National Institutes of Health will fund studies of possible therapies, such as an insulin nasal spray. Another study will examine an antibody drug that attacks a protein thought to be a cause of Alzheimer’s. There’s also a website to spread awareness and help families find services: www.alzheimers.gov.
Last year, President Barack Obama signed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, which called for the national plan. (Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., wrote the bill). The plan was drafted by the Department of Health and Human Services and includes the contributions of 3,600 people and organizations. The Obama administration has set aside $50 million for the plan in fiscal 2012 and another $100 million is earmarked for fiscal 2013.
Some aspects of the plan — such as developing a work force able to provide quality care for Alzheimer’s patients — could benefit rural states such as Maine where it’s difficult to find specialists. Everyone, whether they’re geriatricians, community health workers, pharmacists, dentists or certified nursing assistants, should know how to address the physical and emotional symptoms of the disease and how to assist caregivers.
Under the plan, health care providers will learn how to manage the disease in the context of other health problems. There will be projects that provide fellowships for people studying to be geriatricians, geriatric dentists or geriatric psychiatrists. More training will be available for all nursing home aides.
The brain changes that precede Alzheimer’s begin up to 10 years before symptoms show. So studies will aim to identify and track disease progression before the appearance of symptoms.
In another effort to catch the disease early and therefore help family and patients prepare, a tool is also being developed for doctors. At an annual doctor’s visit, people now may undergo a cognitive test. While it wouldn’t serve as a diagnosis tool, it would allow primary care doctors to determine the need for a more thorough evaluation and catch the disease before it becomes harder to manage.
The country has a lot of work to do to address Alzheimer’s and it will take time. But having a precise plan is an excellent start. In addition to participating in clinical trials when eligible, Mainers can continue to talk and write about the disease. The more people learn about it, the better.