Mass. Addressing Growing Problem of Alzheimer's Disease

Sep 16, 2013

Credit Alzheimer's Association

Massachusetts is taking steps to address early detection of Alzheimer’s.

Massachusetts has become the first state to partner with the Alzheimer’s Association in its Early Detection Alliance. This move allows commonwealth employees easy access to caregivers, resources and information on the debilitating disease, through the association’s Massachusetts and New Hampshire Chapter. Jim Wessler is the chapter President and CEO.

“People with Alzheimer’s disease, after diagnosis, live on average eight years and can be up to 20 years,” Wessler said. “It’s a long, progressive, terminal disease and most employers really do not have an expertise in this.”

The state employs more than 45,000 people and becomes the 100th employer in Massachusetts to join the alliance, which will provide free online and in-person forums for those seeking help with the disease for themselves or family members. More than five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, and Wessler says predictions for the baby boomer generation show more than 15 million Americans will have the disease by the middle of the century, about 100 million people worldwide.

“With boomers now hitting retirement, I think it’s 10,000 a day that are reaching the age of 65,” he said. “It’s this generation that’s going to blow the roof off this disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive disease in America.”

Alzheimer’s cost the United States $203 billion in 2012. Wessler says what causes Alzheimer’s is still unknown, but studies show the risk increases as one gets older. People over 85 have between a 35 and 40 percent chance of getting Alzheimer’s. He says the disease can start 10 to 15 years before initial symptoms as brain cells slowly die, eventually leading to long-term memory loss. Early signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia include short-term memory loss, poor judgment, and an inability to perform once routine tasks.

“Changing your normal protocols or your quality of life, making it difficult to do what had been routine,” said Wessler.

Wessler says while there is no cure, early diagnosis can improve quality of life by providing patients and their families time to adjust to the realization of the disease. These include decisions regarding health care, finances and family. He says there is ongoing research that shows exercise, a heart-healthy diet, and mental and social engagement, can slow the disease.

“There is evidence for older adults that are cognitively healthy that keeping your mind active and challenged can help memory and what we might call normal age-related changes,” he said. “Those can be, not entirely eliminated, but certainly ameliorated by keeping yourself active.”

One organization that offers stimulating courses and programs for seniors is the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI, which has more than 100 branches in all 50 states. Serving more than 900 members in the Berkshires, OLLI offers year-round lectures, event trips, and a wide range of educational courses. Barbara Hochberg is the Executive Director of OLLI at Berkshire Community College.

“You pretty much have to be brain-dead not to be interested in something in any given catalog,” Hochberg said. “I think that is way people stay with us because there’s always something interesting to learn. We say curiosity never retires. Your brain is the same as your body, you use it or you lose it.”

OLLI partners with BCC, MCLA, Williams College, and Bard College at Simon’s Rock to make its courses accessible to the entire county.  

“There are no tests or papers, although there is homework in some of the classes because if it’s a class on Paradise Lost you obviously have to read Paradise Lost,” said Hochberg.

Hochberg says everyone is welcome as long as they meet the age requirement.

“We don’t ask ages,” she said. “Our average age is 74; you can pretty much tell they belong by looking at them.”

OLLI courses for the fall semester are under way. The Alzheimer’s Association will hold a fundraising walk in Cheshire this Saturday.