Guest Opinions

My experience with Alzheimer’s disease | Guest Opinion

In 2015, I was told I had early stage memory loss, almost certainly due to Alzheimer’s disease.

I was 65. I did poorly on cognitive tests, and MRIs showed relentless atrophy of my brain. I was initially in the stage known as mild cognitive impairment, which immediately precedes Alzheimer’s dementia.

In 2016, I had episodes when I couldn’t recall my zip code or my phone number of 30 years. When my wife told me what they were, the numbers didn’t sound familiar. I was sometimes baffled by the traffic when trying to cross the street.

We all know that Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease that robs people of their dignity and their very identity. It is the third leading cause of death in Washington state, bankrupting families in the process of killing its victims.

While it may be common in the elderly, it is definitely not normal. I once read that a drug intervention should be on the market by 2019; but unfortunately, that drug intervention never appeared. There are a few medications to treat symptoms, but a medicine to cure my disease is still not here.

However, since 2016, my cognitive test scores have improved steadily, and other manifestations of the disease, such as regular episodes of depression, have almost disappeared. I know my zip code and I cross the street safely. I’m not cured per se, but my life has changed completely.

Why?

I adopted lifestyle interventions that, taken together, dramatically turned things around for me: daily vigorous aerobic exercise, a Mediterranean diet, reducing stress, getting adequate sleep, maintaining social connections, learning new things, and the first hour of my day reserved for quiet Bible reading and prayer. While this approach may not help everyone, these are examples of the kinds of interventions now being found effective by many scientific studies:

A Rush University Medical Center study found individuals who applied four or five healthy lifestyle habits had a 60% lower risk of Alzheimer’s dementia. Participants applying two or three had a 39% lower risk.

The Alzheimer’s Association is also currently funding the U.S. POINTER study, a two-year clinical trial to evaluate lifestyle interventions that simultaneously target multiple risk factors to protect cognitive function in older adults (age 60-79) at increased risk for cognitive decline.

More research like this is needed if we are going to find a way to prevent, treat or cure Alzheimer’s disease.

Congress must pass an appropriations bill increasing Alzheimer’s research funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by $350 million in fiscal year 2020. This amount is consistent with what NIH scientists believe is necessary to achieve the national goal of a treatment by 2025; but the House passed an appropriations bill that would increase Alzheimer’s research by just $100 million.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has supported increased research funding for Alzheimer’s disease in the past, and advocates like myself are grateful that Congress has increased Alzheimer’s research funding at the National Institutes of Health four-fold in the last five years — but it’s not enough. I hope that Congressman Newhouse will continue championing Alzheimer’s research by urging House leadership to achieve a $350 million level when negotiating the final FY20 appropriations bill with the Senate.

Until there is an effective treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s, the best thing we can do is adopt brain-healthy habits. Visit alz.org/10ways for a full list. Leading a healthier lifestyle is an accessible, inexpensive change that nearly everyone can make in their lives, no matter their circumstances. Some things you can’t change — like your genes — but we have control over healthy habits. You can start living healthier today.

David Brown is a retired engineer and high school science teacher who lives with his wife in Richland. He is author of the book Beating the Dementia Monster: How I stopped the advance of cognitive impairment from Alzheimer’s disease.

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