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Forget Me Not

Alzheimer’s disease is a damaging health issue, but new advancements and awareness initiatives may aid in prevention…

In the United States, approximately one in every 10 individuals over the age of 65 is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the fact that Alzheimer’s is the sixth most common killer of Americans, this dementia-related disease struggles to exist among its more widely known brethren.

November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and we took a moment to catch up with the North and Central Florida Chapter and local families to discuss some of these struggles, as well as some triumphs in our community.

Michelle Branham is the Florida vice president of the Alzheimer’s Association, and as part of her role, she aims to combat the general public feeling surrounding this disease as well as dispel some informational falsehoods.

“There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, and it’s not always accurate,” says Branham. “It’s so important to our association that we remain as accurate as possible and that we funnel good leading information—that is current—so that people are getting all the things that they need.”

Every year, the North and Central Florida Alzheimer’s Association organizes the Walk to End Alzheimer’s event in the fall. Given that this organization is the largest private funder of dollars in research, events like these become even more paramount in keeping the momentum and progress in forward motion. The city of Orlando’s participation in this occasion has been a defining aspect of our community, and the awareness spread and funds raised have continued to positively impact the future of this disease.

“We just had our Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Orlando [on Oct.7],” she says. “There are 600 of them across the country, but Orlando is a large one because we had over 2,000 participants and Rep. Scott Plakon was our keynote speaker.”

The use of the money speaks for itself, but the levels of awareness also play a crucial role in advancing progress in the disease. Branham’s hope is to change the dialogue when discussing Alzheimer’s.

“People look at Alzheimer’s as no treatment, no prevention, no cure, and they don’t want to acknowledge it or know if they have it. If we wait … and don’t want to see it, it becomes a crisis situation and the whole family is profoundly affected upon diagnosis.”

Branham wants everyone to take a more active role in this process, should they find themselves or a loved one affected. By doing so, an individual can relieve some of the stressors and prepare while things are in a new, manageable state. A patient being able to dictate how they want their care to look and assist in that process will make all the difference.

One such couple has done exactly this, and their honesty and willingness to discuss their experience has been inspiring to many. Orlando residents Mary and Ed Haddad deal with the effects of Alzheimer’s daily, as Ed was diagnosed in 2013. Upon hearing the news, they immediately reached out to the organization for support.

“There is a wealth of help and information available for those dealing with [Alzheimer’s] and other dementias,” says Mary. “The greatest help was a couples group called First Steps by Martha Purdy, which led several couples through a series of monthly meetings dealing with important topics that we would be faced with on this journey.”

As it turns out, this group would lead to some important connections that the Haddads continue to foster today.

“After the initial several months, we bonded so strongly with this group that we asked to continue this support. We also took the initiative as couples on our own to get together for social events, movies, museum visits and monthly luncheons,” says Mary.

Mary and Ed have taken a difficult situation and turned it into an opportunity to embrace new areas of life, and they credit their proactivity as one of the largest factors in successfully navigating these uncharted waters.

“There are numerous ways to cope and still enjoy life,” she says. “We resumed square dancing because we learned that dancing is excellent therapy for the brain. We attend LIFE classes at UCF on Tuesday mornings and enjoy many local musical events and theater productions both on campus and downtown. Ed has developed an interest in creating art out of found objects and also works in the garden. He is presently creating a meditation corner in our backyard.”

They fully acknowledge that additional struggles will occur and more help will be needed in the future, but for today, they will cherish what they have and take everything in stride.

“We have learned to laugh at ourselves and joke about the frustrations of life. Our spiritual life has been a major support for us, and relationships with family and friends are even more important. A positive attitude and a sense of humor are valuable tools,” Mary says.

When it comes to looking toward the future, there have been substantial advances into the research of long-term preventative methods. Director of Science Initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association, Dr. Dean Hartley, cites new developments in the field and he is hopeful, to say the least.

Recent data suggests that one of the strongest methods for staving off the effects of Alzheimer’s and reducing individual risk is a Mediterraneanstyle diet that is high in omega-3 and calcium and low in salt. Items that are heavily processed and high in salt, sugar and saturated fat have been discovered to be quite destructive.

“We’ve probably always thought about eating healthier, but the science has gotten more sophisticated in how we’re making measurements,” says Hartley. “And that’s where we are making inroads to harder science and to proving the things that we intuitively know are changing the course of this disease.”

“Being healthy in earlier life is always important, but even if someone is not healthy now, they will still see greater benefits in the remainder of years that they have if they begin exercising,” says Hartley. “It can be beneficial no matter where you are in life. It’s like smoking—just stopping is an immediate health boost. Think about muscle; if you build up and then stop, it goes away, and the brain works like that in many ways. Sections in the brain are based on input and experience, whether it be smell, sight, hearing, and keeping up with that and getting multi-types of stimulus is what keeps the brain healthy.”

A recent study overseas mirrored this sentiment when it followed participants for two years as they undertook a strict diet and exercise regimen. Across the board, subjects who successfully completed the trials lowered their risk for Alzheimer’s by about 30 percent. Now, the United States will be recruiting early next year for a similar study. The $20 million, two-year clinical trial will include 2,500 participants, and local chapters will partner with community YMCAs to assist in trials.

The fear of having to deal with Alzheimer’s disease in any measure is a worthwhile one in the 21st century, but the outlook for care and quality of life is an extremely bright one.

“Getting money at the federal level for clinical trials and getting support from legislators are critical pieces that will change the course of this disease,” says Hartley. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s November 2017 issue.

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