Broadcast: June 15, 2004
This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Sarah Long.
And I'm Bob Doughty. In November of nineteen-ninety-four, Ronald Reagan wrote a letter to the American people. The former president shared the news that he had Alzheimer's disease. He began what he called his journey into the sunset of his life. That ten-year journey ended on June fifth, at the age of ninety-three.
Today we have a special program about Alzheimer's disease, as seen through the life of a woman named Irene. We first told you about Irene several years ago. Yet the story of her struggle remains timely.
Irene lives near Rochester, New York. She is her late eighties, but she is not always sure about her age. Sometimes she says she is twenty-seven. At other times she says she is ninety-seven. Often Irene cannot remember names of people she has known for many years. Also, she struggles to find words to say what she wants to say. And sometimes she forgets what she was talking about.
She is no longer permitted to drive a car. She almost had a terrible accident one day. She turned at a place where she should not have turned. Her husband Dick told her she should not drive because it was too dangerous. This made some parts of Irene’s life difficult.
She had to depend on others to drive her to the many community activities that she had always been involved in. Irene used to live a very full life. But then came new restrictions on her abilities, restrictions that seemed to increase almost daily. Today she lives in a nursing home where she receives care.
Several years ago, Irene discovered that she had Alzheimer’s disease. She is among more than four-million Americans suffering from the disease. As the population of the United States grows older, many millions more are expected to have the disease in years to come.
Doctors describe Alzheimer’s disease as a slowly increasing brain disorder. It affects memory and personality -- those qualities that make a person an individual. There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Victims of the disease slowly lose their ability to deal with everyday life. At first they forget simple things, like where they put something, or a person’s name.
As time passes they forget more and more. They forget the names of their husband, wife, or children. Then they forget who they are. Finally they remember nothing. It is as if their brain dies before the rest of their body dies. Victims of Alzheimer’s do die from the disease, but not always right away.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of a disability or mental sickness called dementia. Dementia is the loss of thinking ability that is severe enough to interfere with daily activities. It is not a disease itself. Instead dementia is a group of signs of certain conditions and diseases.
Some forms of dementia can be cured or corrected. This is especially true if they are caused by drugs, alcohol, infection, sight or hearing problems, heart or lung problems, or head injury.
Other forms of dementia can be corrected by changing levels of hormones or vitamins in the body. However, in victims of Alzheimer’s disease, brain cells die and are not replaced.
As the ability to remember and think decreases, victims can become angry and violent. Often they shout and move about with no purpose or goal. Media reports often tell about older people found walking in places far from their homes, not knowing where they are, or where they came from. Generally these people are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Although Alzheimer’s disease develops differently in each person, there are early signs of the disease that are common. Often, victims of the disease may not recognize changes in themselves. Others see the changes and struggle to hide them.
Probably the most common early sign of Alzheimer’s disease is short-term memory loss. Also, victims of the disease have increasing difficulty learning and storing new information. Slowly, thinking processes become more difficult. For example, they find themselves unable to understand a joke, or cannot cook a meal, or do simple tasks.
Another sign of Alzheimer’s is difficulty in solving easy problems, such as what to do if food on a stove is burning. Also, people have trouble trying to follow directions or find the way to nearby places.
Another sign is victims struggling to find the right words to express thoughts or understand what is being discussed. Finally, people with Alzheimer’s seem to change. Quiet people may become noisier and aggressive. They may easily become angry and lose their ability to trust others.
Alzheimer’s is considered an old people’s disease. It normally affects people more than sixty-five years old. However, a few rare cases have been discovered in people younger than forty. The average age of those found to have the disease is about eighty years old.
Alzheimer’s disease is found in only about two percent of people who are sixty-five.
But the risk increases to about twenty percent by age eighty. By age ninety, half of all people are found to have signs of the disease. Alzheimer’s affects people of all races equally. However, women are more likely than men to develop the disease. This is partly because women generally live longer than men.
There is no simple test to tell if someone has Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors who suspect a person has the disease must test a patient for many other disabilities first. If the tests fail to show that other disabilities are responsible for the problems, then a doctor suspects that Alzheimer’s disease is responsible.
In his book “The Notebook,” Nicholas Sparks calls Alzheimer’s disease “a barren disease, as empty and lifeless as a desert. It is a thief of hearts and souls and memories.” British writer Iris Murdoch, who died of Alzheimer’s disease, said it was a dark and terrible place.
Irene, also a writer, refused to surrender to that opinion. Instead, she began writing a book about her experience. She also wrote a short letter giving advice to those suffering from Alzheimer’s. She wrote that she lives with the disease "hopefully."
She wrote: “We know that negative emotions can be harmful to health, and a strong will to live may well strengthen the body’s defense system. So, it seems wise to not spend time looking into the future, but to get the most from each day as it comes.”
At the end of her letter, Irene wrote about care givers. She said she greatly honors those who take care of Alzheimer’s patients, because that job is so very hard. And that is one of the most tragic things about Alzheimer’s disease – care for the patient becomes more and more difficult.
Often the caregiver’s help is rejected, as Alzheimer’s victims grow more and more distant and more difficult to control. And often, the caregiver is a family member.
Ronald Reagan was probably the most famous person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In his letter in nineteen-ninety-four, America's fortieth president wrote about the fears and difficulties presented by Alzheimer’s. He said that he and his wife, Nancy, hoped that their public announcement would lead to greater understanding of the condition among individuals and families affected by it.
Mister Reagan shared something in common with Irene. In their letters, they each expressed hope, a desire to continue their lives as they had in the past, and concern for those who must care for them.
Researchers are not sure what causes Alzheimer's disease. But they are working to find ways to treat the disease, and to cure or prevent it. There have been some hopeful developments in recent years. Still, there is nothing yet that can stop the disease or ease the pain of those caring for victims of Alzheimer’s.
Today, Irene's book about her own experience remains unfinished.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Oliver Chanler and produced by Mario Ritter. This is Sarah Long.
And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.