Misplacing your keys or forgetting a phone number are not necessarily signs of Alzheimer’s disease: the time to be concerned is when you forget important information or things that are usually easily remembered, such as doctor’s appointments or regular golf games.
“When there is a pattern like this, and other people, like family, friends and colleagues, begin to notice it, that’s significant,” says Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Petersen was a physician to U.S. president Ronald Reagan and diagnosed his Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.
Petersen was in Toronto recently, giving the fifth annual Andreae Alzheimer Lecture during the Alzheimer Society of Toronto’s annual general meeting. The lecture was held in the George Ignatieff Theatre at Trinity College, University of Toronto.
Alzheimer’s disease, Petersen stressed, is neither “just aging,” nor is it a natural part of aging. “It’s a degenerative disease of the brain, where the neurons start to fail,” he said.
The disease’s effect on a person is determined by the part of the brain in which the process is taking place.
If the cells in the language centre are affected, the person can’t speak or understand what is said to him, Petersen said. If the cells in the frontal lobe are affected, there may be personality changes.
The cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown, although Petersen said there may be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Diagnosis is by clinical means – in other words, by analyzing the patient’s behaviour and symptoms. Petersen noted that “definite diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is only possible on autopsy.”
There is no approved treatment for mild cognitive impairment, Petersen said. Drugs, among them Aricept, have been tried. While the drugs slow down the disease for a year or a year and a half, studies have shown that by the end of three years, those who took the drugs are not noticeably better those who didn’t.
Lifestyle modifications such as staying intellectually and physically active don’t prevent the condition, but, Petersen said, they seem to slow its advance.
He said the span of the mild stage of the disease is eight to 10 years.
The Andreae Alzheimer Lecture is funded by the Andreae family of Toronto.
Ruth Andreae and her family established the lecture because they wanted to do something to help in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease after her husband, Herbert, lost his battle with it.
Andreae’s son, Dan, was the first executive director of the Alzheimer Society of Toronto. He said that the family decided to institute a lecture series so that experts could share information about leading trends and developments in care and research.
At the inaugural lecture, in 2004, Dr. Kathryn Perez Riley, of the University of Kentucky, spoke about the seminal “Nun Study,” in which 678 elderly nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame were tested for cognitive function.
Each lecture is videotaped and sent to Alzheimer societies across Canada.
The family believes that “knowledge and awareness is the first step in dealing with and finding a cure for the disease,” Dan Andreae said.