With more than a third of Alzheimer’s cases potentially preventable, people are being urged to take their health into their own hands.
According to Jo-Ann Cousins-Simpson, of The Family Practice, research has shown that exercise can cut the risk of developing the disease by 50 per cent.
The local physician, who is organising the island’s first Alzheimer’s and Dementia summit, hopes this information will inspire people to make the necessary lifestyle changes.
“The whole point of this summit is to let the public know, to let each individual know that they do have the power to make the change in terms of health,” she told The Royal Gazette.
“Don’t wait on a physician to do it, don’t wait on anybody else to do it. You have all the tools you need. Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that affects multiple brain functions, including memory, and it is the most common cause of dementia.
Patients who have had Alzheimer’s diagnosed show a lack of certain brain functions without any other possible cause, “meaning we cannot say you had an accident and that’s why you are not remembering”.
“It’s a really terrible disease. Most patients say they would prefer cancer to having Alzheimer’s. Nobody wants to lose their mind, lose their whole existence, their memories — that’s what scares people.”
According to Dr Cousins-Simpson, about 2,000 people in Bermuda have full-blown Alzheimer’s and more still have early Alzheimer’s disease.
“It is a really big problem,” she said, adding that UK statistics estimate that only 40 per cent of people with Alzheimer’s actually have the disease diagnosed.
“The broader number is way beyond what we actually think and it’s a big problem because it costs so much both financially and emotionally.”
She said particularly those with early Alzheimer’s are being missed in Bermuda because they are still able to function to a certain extent.
“But they are still on the spectrum because in two or three years they are not going to be able to function without help.”
According to Dr Cousins-Simpson, patients have not sought medical help in the past because both physicians and the public believed nothing could be done.
But she believes that if they knew it could be prevented “more patients will come out, get tested and just get on the programme”.
She pointed to a study led by Carol Brayne, Professor of Public Health Medicine at the University of Cambridge, which determined that a third of all Alzheimer’s cases could potentially be prevented.
“Exercise can decrease your chances of getting Alzheimers by 50 per cent,” Dr Cousins-Simpson said, adding that it is never too late and that “it doesn’t matter how far you are on the spectrum”.
She added that Alzheimer’s is not like cancer or other diseases where you either get well or you die — it requires a lot of care and money over a long period of time.
Patients eventually need 24-hour care, with family members having to either stay at home as carers, hire a caregiver, or place them in a home.
Those who have no one to care for them, end up in the hospital’s chronic care unit or other wards, having initially been brought in for other reasons.
But Dr Cousins-Simpson also noted that there were no dedicated care homes in Bermuda for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, “which is what we really need”.
“People should have dignity at the end of life and a lot of care homes are not equipped to do it. It’s not that they don’t want to but that was not their purpose in the first place.”
“It costs society a lot,” Dr Cousins-Simpson said, adding that the disease will cost an estimated $1 trillion worldwide next year. “That is astounding for something we are discovering now can be preventable.”
She also stressed the need for patients to raise any concerns about memory loss with their doctor, not only to get an early diagnosis but also to monitor the disease’s progression.
Dr Cousins-Simpson has teamed up with Maxine Simmons, clinical nurse co-ordinator at the hospital, to found the Bermuda Alzheimer’s and Memory Services.
Once up and running, this new company aims to provide educational and medical services, as well as a specialised dementia care facility. But they decided that the first step to tackling Alzheimer’s is to educate people about what is available and how it can be prevented.
Dr Cousins-Simpson said a summit seemed like a good place to start and “Alzheimer’s Disease: Yes It’s Preventable” will feature guest speakers ophthalmologist Clement Trempe and medical scientist Thomas Lewis.
“It’s mostly about empowering the public to make changes in their lifestyle,” she added.
“I’m not saying you will never ever get Alzheimer’s. It’s like diabetes; it’s preventable but some people will get it no matter what. But if we could cut down the amount of people with Alzheimer’s by a third, or two-thirds, it’s amazing what could be done for the health system.”
Today’s summit will run from 6pm to 9pm at the Earl Cameron Theatre at City Hall. As there are limited seats, visit http://beamsbermuda.org/#rsvp to RSVP
Early signs and symptoms
Lack of exercise, smoking and poor educational attainment are among the greatest lifestyle factors behind Alzheimer’s disease. According to a study from the University of Cambridge, other key risk factors include diabetes, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity and depression.
After accounting for non-independence between risk factors, researchers found that around a third of Alzheimer’s cases worldwide might be attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors and that incidence might be reduced through improved access to education and use of effective methods targeted at reducing the prevalence of vascular risk factors and depression.
Meanwhile, risk factors that cannot be changed include increasing age, family history and heredity, according to the United States-based Alzheimer’s Association. The organisation lists the following ten early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s:
1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life;
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems;
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure;
4. Confusion with time or place;
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships;
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing;
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps;
8. Decreased or poor judgment;
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities;
10. Changes in mood and personality.