is the scariest disease of them all. Slowly losing your sight or your hearing is bad, but relentlessly losing your mind is terrifying.
It's also expensive. The cost of caring for people with dementia exceeds $725 billion annually, the combined 2009 revenues of Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobil, according to The World Alzheimer Report 2010
issued by Alzheimer's Disease International.Alzheimer's authority Dr. Kenneth Robbins, who is both a psychiatrist and an internist, and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says that despite the amount of research into the disease
it is unlikely that baby boomers will survive long enough to benefit from a cure.
Robbins says that the initial research into the disease focused on treatments, without much result. Most of the successes have only delayed the inevitable. But a few years ago, medical researchers switched their focus to preventing Alzheimer's
. While most of that research is in the early stages, the findings are much more promising and people who are in their 30s and 40s can expect preventive drugs and technologies that will help them avoid dementia.
Robbins, who is also a senior medical editor at Caring.com
, a website that focuses on providing support to people taking care of others, says more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's and more than 11 million friends and family members provide unpaid care for them. To help these caregivers assess where their loved ones are in this relentless continuum of mental decay, Robbins and others on the site have devised a simple tool
called Steps & Stages. The tool allows family and caregivers to measure the progress of the disease, and it offers support and suggestions for more effective care giving at every point.
If you are concerned that someone has Alzheimer's, you can help him take the test -- or take the test
Can you test yourself for symptoms of Alzheimer's? Robbins says no -- for a couple of reasons:
There are many kinds of memory loss, including that caused by depression, which mimics Alzheimer's but is very treatable.
While a few people have significant self-awareness, most people aren't able to accurately judge their own behavior.
Robbins says it's important to identify dementia as early as possible because that will help family and caregivers make what can be expensive and painful decisions before the progress of the disease forces them to do things they might have avoided given more time.
Diagnosing Alzheimer's right away also can eliminate some unneccessary tests and provide opportunities to place patients in group settings where they will be encouraged to exercise and be actively involved, which can slow the progress of the disease. If done early enough, Robbins says, the patient still will have the capability of developing new memories in this setting. That will make the final stages less disorienting for the patient and less painful for the people who love him.