July 9, 2000 -- In the fall of 1998, Barbara and Les Dennis sat at the table
in their Chicago home, deep in the throes of retirement planning. Barbara had
printed out a spreadsheet showing their sources of income as well as the bills
they'd have to pay. Les, a college professor in his early 60s, studied it and
then tossed it back on the table. "It doesn't make any sense," he told
her. Figuring that Les' poor eyesight was at fault, Barbara redid the
spreadsheet, using larger and bolder type, and patiently began to explain the
figures. But Les exploded in frustration: "You're just trying to figure out
how you can save all the money until I die!"
"That's when I knew something was really wrong," Barbara says. Les
wasn't the type to erupt in anger, he wasn't given to irrational fears -- and
as a professor at Loyola University, he certainly wasn't a man to get confused
over a column of numbers.
Since Jeanne Erdmann's mother was diagnosed three years ago with dementia, she has taken on the daily responsibilities of bathing and dressing her mom, preparing her meals, making sure she takes her medicine, and managing her finances.
"It wears you down. I think it's the grind of having someone there every day who needs more and more attention," says Erdmann, a medical journalist in Wentzville, Mo. Although she says she's happy to be there for her mom, Erdmann acknowledges the toll caregiving ...
One month later, even Les agreed that something was wrong. He underwent
testing for depression and anxiety. His brain was scanned for signs of a
stroke. Finally, he took a battery of cognitive tests that gave him the
diagnosis he dreaded: early Alzheimer's.
Just a few years ago, most of the estimated 4 million Americans with
Alzheimer's weren't diagnosed until late in the disease, after they'd started
getting lost on the way to the store or forgetting their grandchildren's names.
But advances in early detection -- a primary theme at the World Alzheimer's
Congress 2000 being held in Washington, D.C., from July 9-18 -- now make it
possible for some to know that their brain is slowly deteriorating years before
they fully lose their ability to think. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can
identify subtle changes in structures of the brain that relate to memory.
Cognitive tests now can distinguish early Alzheimer's from minor memory lapses
that come with age.
Looking More Closely at the Brain
Leading researchers say there are good reasons to seek early detection:
People have time to plan, to try drug therapy, and to live their last good
years fully. Yet such knowledge comes at a high price: With no cure yet in
sight, people like Les Dennis must live with the awareness that they are
gradually slipping into dementia.