By Susan Sheehan
South Weymouth – In early May, I attended the celebration and ribbon cutting for the new site of the Alzheimer’s Association Office in Waltham. The event included a short video and testimonials from family members who have battled the disease firsthand, either through the life of a loved one, or personally. The statistics in the video were staggering. Although I have been in this field for decades, I did not realize that Alzheimer’s Disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. The other fact that struck a chord for me was that one in three seniors will die with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. So the question still remains, what can we do about this steady climb in numbers for all of those in our society affected by this crippling disease?
Of course we know that there are now treatments and specialists in the medical field that can diagnose Alzheimer’s and other dementias, so we, at best, know what we are dealing with. However, I believe that many of us in healthcare have also come to understand that there is so much more to treating and slowing down Alzheimer’s and other dementias beyond memory enhancement medications.
Several years ago I was involved in a research study and learned about a technique of cognitive therapy that help people strengthen brain cells that were still functioning and viable. The simple idea that people would not just automatically decline through the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease caused me to think beyond just treating symptoms. The “Maintain Your Brain” program that was rolled out through the Alzheimer’s Association suggests that everything from healthy diet and exercise to socialization and cognitive stimulation will slow down the progression of the disease and perhaps prevent symptoms from being experienced.
As a result of research studies and initiatives like these, the approaches to caring for people with memory impairment has changed dramatically. We now understand the importance of keeping those affected socially engaged and active. If there are signs of weight loss and lack of good nutrition, there are initiatives throughout elder care agencies to promote education and options for seniors to learn about a “brain healthy” diet. Many senior centers have adopted higher level exercise programs and opportunities to exercise socially. Outings, trips and cognitive stimulating activities are now the norm in most centers for seniors.
There are also several senior centers in Massachusetts that have small social day programs within their center to accommodate those with dementing illnesses. Several years ago people unable to manage at the senior centers independently were really not able to attend programs safely, so they remained isolated at home. Simply, the recognition of widespread repercussions of those affected has caused us as a society to bend and shape our senior centers and programs into something that can help all of our seniors still living in the community.
There are several things we can do. We can continue to learn what is good for us, and how we can keep “brain healthy.” We can help people who are newly diagnosed, know that they are not alone, and there is help. Joining support groups can help those that are caregivers to learn about the resources available in our communities. Looking at how far we have come, I have no doubt that we will continue to identify ways of caring and providing better and better treatment for this disease.
The topic of Alzheimer’s and brain health is so important. We should take any opportunity to explore ways we can stay healthy and prevent brain disease.