Alzheimer’s Disease – A Growing Problem

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Guest:  Fran Emerson – Alzheimer’s Association

Host:  Sally Smith - Author/Resource literature on age-related disease and healthy aging


Sally Smith:  Welcome to Age to Age.  I’m Sally Smith.  Let’s talk.  Fran Emerson, the head of the Alzheimer’s Association in our Charleston area, is with us today.  Fran, I’m in such awe of the gifts that you have given to our community through sharing your great knowledge and insights, very positive ones, about the whole field of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and caregiving. 


I just wanted to ask you, I know that you have been in this field, the aging, for a long time; you have vast experience, 36 years.  Through that experience, you’ve seen something that looked like just a senility, dementia be identified as Alzheimer’s.  Now, everyone is on the trail of Alzheimer’s.  You know, we see so much more of it being identified.  What, from your great vantage point, of being in the field, hook, line and sinker, and watching it evolve over many years, what do you see as our future?  Where do you think this might be going?  I know this is random, and we don’t know, but you have the experience to have an educated guess.


Fran Emerson:  Well, of course, the Alzheimer’s Association mission, and vision, is a world without Alzheimer’s.  And I truly believe that we can achieve that goal.  There have been huge advances made in medication treatments.  Research is taking place all over the country, all over the world.  You know, I’m not a gambling woman, but if I were to make a guess, I would say that we could probably have some significant answers on treatment, maybe even prevention, in the next twenty years.  I truly believe that’s possible.  There’s a lot happening. 


There is a reason to hope that we can beat this thing.  It is a disease of old age, largely but, you know, there are some people diagnosed at an early age.  If we’re to address quality of life in later years, the quality of life for retirees, people still in the workplace in late life, then it’s in our own best interest to find an answer to this.  It’s in the interest of the economy of every country.  It’s in the interest of the industry.  It’s in the interest of all of us to address this.  This is random.  This knows no political, cultural or socioeconomic divide; it’s random.  This can strike anyone.  It doesn’t matter what color you are, how much money you’ve got, so we’re all in the same boat.  And I believe that we have a reason to hope that we can get rid of this thing.


Sally Smith:  And how would we get rid of it?  What are the steps?  I mean, we’ve obviously thrown much more at research, financially, there’s much more interest in all of that.  At the current level, would it play out in twenty years?  I hear murmurs that, maybe, Congress wants a lot more going toward research for Alzheimer’s because of the huge impact, as you say, on the economy, and quality of life.  What needs to happen, or what would you like to see?


Fran Emerson:  I would like to see us all find a voice.  It’s incredible that this is the fourth leading cause of death in the states.  It’s costing the country a huge amount of money.  And people are not speaking up.  It’s not a trendy illness, you know, but it is devastating.  And with the baby boomers reaching retirement age, it’s going to be massive.  I think all of us have a duty to influence our representatives in the Senate and Congress.  It’s not a political issue.  We’re all in the same boat, as I’ve said, so we all have a responsibility to see that as much money as possible goes into research.


Sally Smith:  So that’s what you would be for?  If you were talking to your representative, you’d say that research is what we’re after, as you see it?


Fran Emerson:  Right.


Sally Smith:  Uh huh.


Fran Emerson:  What are you going to do?  What are you going to do to ensure, when you get into power, to make sure enough money goes into research to address this issue?  And then the other side of that is all of our own, individual, responsibilities to engage in a healthy lifestyle.  You know, that can influence your risk of dementia.  Many of us do not have healthy lifestyles.  You know, if you’re smoking, stop smoking.  If your diet is unhealthy, adopt a healthy one.  If you’re not exercising regularly, start exercising regularly.  Keep connected.  Keep socially connected.  All these things can reduce your individual risk for a dementia.  So, keep fit, keep healthy, and make sure your voice is heard so that we get the money to cure this illness. 


Sally Smith:  This is a political moment in our lives.  I know you got held up today by people going to hear the presidential candidate on your way here.  Are these the things you would say to him as well?  Is this what you would ask for, that, on the national level, the message gets out to take responsibility for yourself, and that the monies go into Alzheimer’s research to end this?


Fran Emerson:  Yes.  If I’d had time, Sally, on the way here, I would have stopped, and I would have asked that question:  what are you going to do about the current 5.5 million people with Alzheimer’s, that could conceivably grow to 15 million by the middle of this century if we don’t beat this thing, what are you doing about it?  It’s a simple question, and I’m really intrigued to know what the answer would be. 


Sally Smith:  I think it’s so interesting what you said about 36 years working with older people and how, in the beginning, Alzheimer’s was a nonentity.  It was not known at all.  Now, as it has come into focus, has been identified, more and more people have been diagnosed, across the world, as you have pointed out, and now the baby boomers are approaching retirement age.  I’ve spoken to political people, doctors, you, so many people about the unbelievable tidal wave of personal anguish, as well as the huge financial drain, amazingly not just, of course, for the people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, but for all the people in their families that are caregiving.  We’ve talked to people on this show with businesses losing so much time because their employees are on the phone trying to deal with Mother, wherever she lives.  It’s just a monster.  And it’s the kind of thing that hasn’t roared loud enough.  It’s coming, but it’s so hard to imagine that it’s really going to be that bad.  You know, it’s not in your face that way that the war is, or certain major issues, immigration, or whatever.  It’s a quieter subject.  And I think your question is such a good one.


You know, one thing that it all goes back to, like we’ve talked so much about with caregiving, and surviving an illness, is attitude.  Well, America was, really, premised on people taking personal responsibility.  We were never supposed to have Big Brother telling us every little move to make.  It was personal responsibility.  And I think people, you know, may know that politically, but how about medically?  I love that you point that out as one of the major issues, because you’re right.  I mean, you are responsible for not being obese, avoiding lung cancer by not smoking.  I mean, that is a personal responsibility.


Fran Emerson:  It is, Sally.  It certainly is.  And, you know, I’m as guilty as anybody else, in terms of getting regular exercise, and so on.  But I’m conscious of the fact that, you know, if I want quality of life as I grow older, then, you know, I have to do something about it.  I think the days of being a passive recipient of other people’s ideas of what’s best for us are gone.  We have to stand up.  If we have a symptom, then we have all these incredible resources, like the internet, to find out what might be wrong with us.  We’re almost our own physician, in a way.  And I think if we all take responsibility in that way, then we can actually help the medical profession.


Sally Smith:  And have a much fuller, happier life ourselves. 


Fran Emerson.  Absolutely.


Sally Smith:  I mean, you reap what you sow.  I mean, sometimes you don’t reap what you sow.  Sometimes a bad thing will zap you, like Alzheimer’s.  But you can certainly give yourself the best chance.


Fran Emerson:  You can give yourself the best chance.  You can’t fix it.  We don’t want to, you know, take away the fact this is an overwhelming, devastating disease.  And this is why the Alzheimer’s Association is here to support the people who are affected by it.  But, yes, you can do certain things.


Sally Smith:  Well, hold that thought.  Thank you so much, Fran, for being with us today.  And thanks to all our listeners for joining us and listening, today, to Age to Age.  This is Sally Smith saying good-bye and wishing you courage and joy on your own journey.  We are all connected.


If you enjoy listening to Sally Smith, you can buy her book, The Circle.  It’s the story of how she personally responded to her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease.  It’s a wonderful gift of hope for anyone with a parent with dementia.  Just click on Sally Smith’s name under the Health Professionals tab on the Podcast home page.  All profits support research at the Center on Aging.  Thanks.

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