Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Living with memory loss


Alzheimer's - for now - cannot be cured, but these Tristaters do their best to slow its effects

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Jim Leer, 57, of Forest Park, laughs along with the group during an art class through the Alzheimer's Association at their offices on Linn Street.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
Jim Leer likes painting landscapes and sunsets. The pictures remind him of his years in the Navy; picking out colors keeps his hands and mind busy.

"I've been a lot of places," the Forest Park man says, pointing out a beach scene that he especially likes. "This is one I drew of New Zealand."

Leer's new hobby serves another purpose: Painting helps preserve memories and mental function that he would otherwise lose to Alzheimer's disease.

Painting, reading, golf, even going to a Reds game, can help slow Alzheimer's progress. And new evidence suggests that staying active mentally - art, music, crossword puzzles, visits with friends - can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Bill Thies, vice president for medical and scientific affairs for the Alzheimer's Association, gets lots of questions about how to prevent Alzheimer's.

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"You can prevent it, but most people aren't happy with the cure," Thies says. "The major risk factor for Alzheimer's is age. As we see the population continue to age, we're going to see more Alzheimer's disease."

But as the baby boom generation enters its golden years, the push is on for remedies that will delay Alzheimer's or prevent it altogether.

"There are lots of reasons to talk about the concept of healthy aging. The likelihood is that most of us who are under 60 are going to live longer than previous generations, and there is also an increasing sense of people's desire to remain functional as they age," Thies says.

There's little evidence to support claims that vitamin E or other supplements will prevent Alzheimer's. A federal study is under way to see if ginkgo biloba might prevent dementia.

A study released in May from the Women's Health Initiative showed that women who take a combination of estrogen and progestin run a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. The jury is out on whether estrogen alone could prove beneficial, Thies says.

Controlling the factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease - weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and physical inactivity - all seem to help prevent dementia.

There's some indication that statins, which reduce cholesterol, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen cut the risk.

"What seems to work the best is education," says Dr. Steven Bartz, a geriatrician and director of Christ Hospital's Alzheimer's Care Center at Maple Knoll Village in Glendale. "Studies have shown that people with higher education levels tend to have Alzheimer's delayed in aging. We're not sure why this is. It might be that they have more neuron connections so they have a better reserve when the dementia kicks in."

A study released last month in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that keeping the brain active could delay Alzheimer's.

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York followed 469 elderly people for 21 years and found that those who had mentally stimulating hobbies reduced their risk of dementia.

Medicine is a start

There is no cure for Alzheimer's. Medicines like Aricept and Exelon slow the progress of the disease, but most therapies focus on helping patients save whatever memory they have. "Use it or lose it" is the theme in treating Alzheimer's.

Leer, 57, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease two years ago. The disease forced him to retire early as the master control technician for a local TV station. He was responsible for making sure local programming, including commercials, aired at the right time.

Leer knew something was wrong: He kept forgetting things and couldn't keep track of tools and equipment at work. His bosses couldn't understand why he kept making mistakes.

The first diagnosis was stress, but he knew that had to be wrong when he walked up to a tape machine before a broadcast and couldn't remember how to make it work.

Leer started researching memory loss on the Internet, and then he called the Alzheimer's Association for advice.

A series of diagnostic tests confirmed that his memory for information and tasks was slipping away.

Now he and his wife are working to slow that process. Leer takes Exelon, which experts believe slows Alzheimer's by preventing chemical changes that lead to the destruction of neural connections, and Leer stays as active as he can.

But it's hard. An avid reader, he can only manage a chapter or two at a time now before he forgets what he just read. He's been a ham radio operator since he was a teenager, but he can't program the frequencies anymore to broadcast, so he just listens.

'The pain of loss'

There are "whole stretches" of his life that he can no longer recall. He remembers arriving on the second ship he was assigned to in the Navy, and he remembers leaving it for the last time.

"But I don't remember anything in between," he says.

Leer calls Alzheimer's "a slow checking out of this world."

"People say, 'Well, you don't have any pain with it,' " he says. "But there's the pain of loss."

A Price Hill native, he remembers looking out the window of his bedroom and seeing Kentucky lying just across the river.

His wife, Donna, 56, grew up in Covington. "I was right there in Kentucky and didn't know somebody was watching me," she jokes.

They actually met through the mail. He was in Vietnam with the Navy and she started writing him when his aunt, Donna's co-worker, told her he needed a pen pal.

"We wrote for two years before we met in person," Donna says. They exchanged more than 500 letters, and they've saved every one of them. "The next year after we met, we got engaged."

Now that Leer is retired, they have plenty of time to travel, visit flea markets and see friends. They plan everything well in advance.

Their new hobby is visiting all the lighthouses they can find, and so far they've hit Ohio, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey.

"It's best to enjoy things while you can," Leer says. "If you wait, you might not be able to do it."

Activities boost stimulation

Anna McCall thinks there's plenty of space for a swimming pool at the Alois Alzheimer Center in Greenhills.

And they should be able to squeeze in a driving range, too, she says.

Swimming and golf are among the highlights on McCall's crowded schedule. She also likes going to the movies and Reds games and reading or playing trivia games. And she takes it on herself to make sure new residents learn the ropes.

The 82-year-old Portsmouth native has found plenty to do since she moved into the center, a long-term-care facility for people with Alzheimer's, two years ago. She was diagnosed three years ago.

"I like to stay busy," she says. "You can't go in a corner and sit there and twiddle your thumbs. What kind of life would that be?"

McCall's daughter, Nancy Stewart of Springdale, agrees.

"If she weren't stimulated, she would decline so fast. There's no doubt in my mind of that."

McCall's room is decorated with photos of her late husband, Davis, and her children and grandchildren. She has a copy of her high school yearbook, and sometimes she and an old school chum look at the pictures and laugh.

She sums her disease up as "aging. I guess you can't have a 20-year-old brain forever."

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E-mail pofarrell@enquirer.com




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