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Alzheimer's and Parkinson's: The Primary Degenerative Brain Diseases We All Face

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By John E. Carey
November 7, 2006

November is National Alzheimer's Disease month.

My Mother suffered from Alzheimer's. My Father suffered from Parkinson's. My best friend has the creeping ill affects of Alzheimer's even now.

Together these degenerative brain diseases affect about 6 million people in the USA. Cases of both diseases are expected to explode in the next few decades as our population ages.

"Boomers are coming of age, and large numbers of them will develop neurodegenerative diseases," says Zaven Khachaturian, president and CEO of the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute in Las Vegas and the former director of the Alzheimer's unit at the National Institute on Aging.

Michael J. Fox has shown us the ill effects of Parkinson's.

These are diseases that impact us all, whether we know it or not.

More than any other disease, you and I can expect to encounter Alzheimer's in a friend, loved one or in ourselves. If, by some good fortune, we never run across Alzheimer's, we will still bear the tremendous costs of Alzheimer's as a major drain on the resources of our medical system.

CNN recently interviewed Dr. John Morris, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Here are a few of his observations:

--"Right around age 65 the frequency of Alzheimer's disease begins to accelerate. Most people who have Alzheimer's disease are 75 years and older. The most prevalent risk factor for Alzheimer's is old age. Of course, our society is aging so Alzheimer's disease is becoming an epidemic among our older adults."

--"Things that are bad for the heart also turn out to be bad for the brain, so hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes. All of these factors in mid-life seem to put us at higher risk for developing Alzheimer's disease or dementia decades later."

--"It is very important to underscore that just because a parent or uncle has Alzheimer's does not necessarily mean that you are going to get it yourself. Most family history of Alzheimer's means there is a susceptibility that can be passed on from generation to generation, but that inherited susceptibility does not mean that you are destined to get Alzheimer's disease."

How do doctors diagnose Alzheimer's? According to Dr. John Morris:

"You can't do a blood test or a CT scan or an MRI scan and diagnose Alzheimer's disease. It takes time. You have to interview someone who knows that patient well. How has their memory changed? Is it interfering with their ability to carry out their usual activities? It takes time, it takes experience. Even then, we're correct about 90 percent of the time, but 10 percent of the time we're not."

How Can I tell, Dr. Morris, when my memory problems are becoming Alzheimer's?

"Does the memory loss represent a change for that person and does it interfere with their ability to carry out their usual activities. All of us have memory lapses, that's part of today's life, but does it stop us from doing things we once did or do we need help in doing things that we once did. For example, if you forget your keys can you retrace your steps and find them? Most of us can. In Alzheimer's disease you can't do that; other people have to do it for you."

How do we keep our brain working?

"Everyone talks about things like crossword puzzles or playing card games like bridge. These may be good, but just staying engaged with other people in conversations in interactions all can be a very valuable and keeping our brains sharp. The data seem to show that people who are socially isolated are more at risk of becoming demented," said Dr. Morris.

And Doctors now believe the morning cup of coffee may help us deal with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
"Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world," says Arendash, a researcher at the Byrd Alzheimer Institute in Tampa. "We think it might protect against Alzheimer's."

A growing list of clinical studies indicates that drinking four or five cups of coffee per day may in fact be good for you. People with a daily intake of four or five cups of coffee are less likely to suffer the ill affects of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, says Caroline Tanner, director of clinical research for The Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, Calif.

But people with high blood pressure or a history of sensitivity to caffeine should first talk to their doctor.

The bottom line of every study of degenerative brain diseases is this: you have to take care of yourself. Obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are all risk factors for these diseases of the mind.
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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.
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