How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Alzheimer's disease: Dreaming a life back again

With the release of the movie "Still Alice," Alzheimer's disease, a form of dementia, is receiving a lot of attention. More than 5 million Americans live with this chronically progressive and fatal condition that generally affects people older than 65. Every 67 seconds, someone new develops the disease in the United States and 500,000 people die from it each year.

"Still Alice" is based on a novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist who knows a great deal about the science, signs and symptoms of the terrible illness. The central protagonist is an attractive 50-year-old professor, Alice Howland, who is in the midst of an impressive academic career at Columbia University. Suddenly, she starts experiencing signs of dementia, a term used to describe various symptoms of cognitive decline. In the case of Alice, these include forgetting words and getting lost in familiar places.

Dementia is an overall term used to describe the disease and the problems that people with various underlying brain disorders or damage can have with their memory, language and thinking. Alzheimer's disease is the most well-known and most common disorder under the umbrella term of dementia.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, early symptoms include: "difficulty remembering recent conversations, names or events ... apathy, and depression. Later symptoms include impaired communication, disorientation, confusion, poor judgment, behavior changes and ultimately difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking." While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, early detection and intervention with medication and lifestyle changes may prolong life by up to 20 years vs. the average survival rate of eight years.

According to the association, "The hallmark pathologies of Alzheimer's are the progressive accumulation of the protein fragment beta-amyloid (plaques) outside neurons in the brain and twisted strands of the protein tau (tangles) inside neurons These changes are eventually accompanied by the damage and death of neurons."

Alice, the character in the film, has early-onset familial Alzheimer's, a fairly rare form of dementia that affects 5 percent of those with Alzheimer's. It is a hereditary form of the disease in which symptoms appear at an unusually early age. Symptoms can start in a person's 30s, 40s and 50s (and very rarely in the late 20s). Generally, if you are diagnosed with this type of Alzheimer's, one of your parents will also have had it if he or she lived long enough, and your siblings and your children may have a 50-50 chance of having inherited it.

While the occurrence of dementia increases as we get older, it is not a normal or inevitable part of the aging process. We can get very old and never get dementia (only about one-third of those over 85 have Alzheimer's disease). With age comes some inevitable cognitive decline. If the loss of memory does not cause the person or the persons around them any problems and does not negatively affect his or her daily activities, it is not dementia.

According to the article "Usual Suspects" in the January/February issue of Arrive magazine, the symptoms of Alzheimer's are "more than forgetting your neighbor's name every once in while. It's memory impairment that affects one's ability to function on a daily basis," explains Mary Schulz, director of education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada. "For example, someone who's done something most of their lives, like mowing the lawn, might look at the lawn mower and wonder, 'How do I get started?"'

The following insights regarding the symptoms of dementia are those of a long-time friend who worked in education and was recently diagnosed with early-onset dementia. He has titled his comments "Dream Life":

"With dementia, self-diagnosis is inherently suspect. This is because inherent in the dementia are sets of self-observations that are tinted by forgetfulness, but are also disorganized and simplistic and fragmented analyses laced with an emotionality that has a bit of a life of its own. But, mine is moving at a quick pace, especially compared to the ordinary conditions associated with dementia. As a result, my window of apparent (to me) cogency is in the hours before 10 a.m. If I'm up early, that time can be substantial -- 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. is pretty good. After that, I'm mentally full, unable and therefore unwilling (not the other way around) to process, analyze and strategize.

"So, when I sleep, it's for rather long periods of time -- nine hours a night, three hours during the day. But it's starting to be something I look forward to, because my dreams are rich, specific and full of satisfying emotion and accomplishment.

"On Jan. 14, for example, I dreamt I was back at work at school organizing an assembly with all the component parts, including moving the kids around with the right amount of joy, with the right amount of staff, and even with the right amount of satisfaction in the accomplishment of the jigsaw puzzle coming together (something now impossible in real life). In the dream, I feel no sense of dread or embarrassment or futility in this enjoyment.

"'A season of suffering is a small assignment when compared to the great reward,' said Christian preacher and writer Max Lucado.

"God's got this."