• Resource agency seeks to give people ‘sense of purpose’
By Sean Pearson
A controversial theory based on new research on Alzheimer’s is gaining ground in the scientific community. The research appears to indicate that the brain is not destroyed by sticky plaques, but by free-floating clumps of protein.
The ongoing study, done by the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, found that amyloid beta protein called oligomers are the main players in robbing the brain of memory.
And while scientists are excited with the breakthrough, the exact cause of these protein clumps remains unknown, and a cure is still far out of reach. This fact alone is enough for Lisa Wawrzonek, education director for Alzheimer’s Resource Agency in Alaska, to take some positive steps toward prevention.
“Research is not showing we can prevent Alzheimer’s, but with mental fitness, eating right, exercise (healthy living) we can reduce our risk or slow down the negative effects,” Wawrzonek explained. “Our main focus is to have people be aware, be proactive and don’t go through this alone. Asking for help does not equate weakness or not accepting responsibility.”
Wawrzonek said that, with normal aging, there is a span of time to recall memories that may get longer as we get older. Alzheimer’s is different.
“We have to understand that, with Alzheimer’s, this is a neurological disorder,” she explained. “That memory is gone and isn’t retrievable. We come to realize that forgetting is actually a disease. The brain atrophies due to lack of use, and it tends to shrink and holes develop.”
According to Wawrzonek, the disease now affects one in eight families, and one in eight individuals over the age of 65. At 85 or older, that number jumps to one in two. And many don’t even start treatment until long after the effects have set in.
“So many individuals are not truly diagnosed until they are already into moderate stages of the disease and then the medication may not have as much of an affect,” she said. “If they are diagnosed and provided medication earlier, this could get them a few more months/years of cognitive health. “
Wawrzonek said the disease is also hard for families to wrap their mind around because it attacks silently.
“It’s not like a medical diagnosis that you can sometimes see the physical effects,” she said. “With dementia, the person looks the same but is acting differently and that can be hard to manage and adapt to.”
Also, many families don’t recognize themselves as caregivers, and the feeling of responsibility blinds them to the fact that caregiving is a job and they need to take care of themselves as well.
“Caregivers caring for someone with dementia are more likely to develop their own health issues because so much of it is stress-related,” Wawrzonek said. “It’s difficult to take care of someone — especially someone you watch kind of disappear before your eyes. They often call it the ‘silent attacker’ or ‘mind stealer’ because it can literally rob that person of their personality. It’s difficult as a caregivers to not take things personally.”
The Alzheimer’s Resource Agency in Alaska deals specifically with dementia by offering education, training and classes. They promote caregivers’ health, and look at each individual to focus on their strengths. Each person is treated like an individual, and Wawrzonek said her office can help those concerned about Alzheimer’s prepare for a doctor’s appointment by doing a memory screen of 30 questions to determine mental status.
Screeners take into account any medical diagnoses, the individual’s environment and stress levels, what their living and family situations are, etc. They can also go along with individuals to the doctor to make sure their concerns are taken seriously.
“People need to have a sense of purpose,” Wawrzonek said. “We can’t take that away from them, and we need to recognize their strengths.”
‘Amblin’ for Alzheimer’s’
Every year, Chip Duggan of Duggan’s Pub steps up to help raise money in the community for a variety of organizations. Alzheimer’s is no exception.
This year, Duggan is not only participating in the “Amblin’ for Alzheimer’s Walk/Run” on Saturday, he’s also hosting a “Halfway to Saint Patrick’s Day” celebration to benefit the Alzheimer’s Resource Agency of Alaska.
“The amount of work Chip has put into helping out our organization is tremendous,” said Lisa Wawrzonek, education director for the Alzheimer’s Resource Agency. “He’s a pretty incredible guy.”
Wawrzonek said the purpose of the run/walk is to raise awareness, and registration is by suggested donation.
“We always love to have the money to support our programs, but the main purpose is to raise awareness of the disease and its effects on the community,” Wawrzonek said. “The money stays within the state, and goes into general funds that we can use for things like education, screenings and respite for caregivers.”
Duggan’s Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day event, featuring corned beef and cabbage and plenty o’ Irish music, runs from 7-9 p.m. on Friday.
Amblin’ for Alzheimer’s — a 10 kilometer run and 2k fun walk starts at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Lighthouse Village at t he base of the Spit.
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