Health & Medicine

Trying to stop or at least slow dementia

Tell your friends and associates that you have dementia, or write a column about it, and be prepared for a well-intentioned bombardment of possible remedies: Eat cashew nuts, cook with coconut oil, drink ginger root and turmeric tea, play more pingpong or chess.

One reader sent me details of his newest curative diet, adding, “My impression is that it doesn’t cure anything. But it does make it easier to live with hope of slowing down the disease.”

I have heard them all since my diagnosis about two years ago. And I’ve read about countless other “cures” on the internet. There’s a website that promises to return your mind to “razor sharp” condition if you’ll subscribe to its monthly pill allotment. More-legitimate websites acknowledge that researchers and practitioners have failed to find any surefire way to prevent, reverse or cure the disease that essentially robs people of their ability to think straight or remember much.

Not long ago, in preparation for a road trip, I found myself cursing at a gas pump that constantly shut off as soon as I tried to put gas in the tank. Becoming more than a little frustrated, I started all over again at another pump, only to have the same experience. “Try another pump,” the attendant said when I complained. Then I remembered I had filled up earlier that morning, causing the pumps to shut down appropriately.

Dementia is a creepy disorder that strikes unmercifully at random moments. Some readers wrote about having good and bad days, or even weeks. I bless the fact that I only have bad moments at this point in the journey.

It is clear that aging is the primary factor in developing dementia, a mystery scientists have yet to unravel. At age 65, 1 of every 9 of us has dementia, and researchers say the number rises to half of those 85 years old.

Since I can’t stop aging, I’ve tried some of my friends’ suggestions. Who knows, they might have merit. I ate lots of nuts for a while, but my digestive system didn’t agree with the treatment. My wife tried cooking with coconut oil as a remedy, but stopped using it because it made food taste a little like cardboard.

Exercise, lots of vitamins and healthful eating are all great suggestions that can only contribute to good health. My doctors say that what’s good for your heart is good for your brain, and it makes sense since the brain receives about a fourth of the blood your heart pumps.

My primary care physician, who works out daily at a gym, urges exercise of all kinds for brain health. He also recommends exercising your brain by playing chess or other analytical games. His philosophy: Use it or lose it.

So I visited an internet chess site where you can play against others. The endeavor left me kind of sad. Even young beginners on the website handily beat me because, unlike in the past, I no longer was able to analyze attacks or plan multiple offensive moves.

In addition, I have been lost a few times for a few minutes, with no clue where I was or where I was going. I often come across old friends or associates and vaguely remember their faces and even their names, but I can’t recall from where or when. An old colleague recently sent me a message thanking me for helping him get his first journalism job, but I no longer recall him or my assistance.

And once I called my cellphone to find it after searching throughout the house, car and garage. When the phone rang in my pocket, it at least helped me find some humor in my situation.

My neurologist prescribed a drug and candidly said it wouldn’t stop my regression, but might slow it down. He recently doubled the dose in hopes of accomplishing the task. Doctors have differing opinions about the drug’s effectiveness, but I take the medication, figuring it’s better to take the pill, even if it may not help, than to ignore it and end up wishing I had tried.

Scientists have yet to produce a cure for dementia, this nation’s sixth-leading cause of death. “Currently there is no cure,” the Alzheimer’s Association reports.

That is not to say there’s no hope. There have been breakthroughs in slowing dementia’s progress, especially for those, like me, who don’t show telltale signs of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia’s tragic and deadliest form.

Researchers apparently show great promise in their quest for answers but are hindered by a lack of drug trial volunteers and research funds. Recent figures show that the National Institutes of Health spends about $480 million on dementia research compared with nearly $8 billion on cancer and heart disease research.

Dr. Bill Thies, a senior scientist in residence at the Alzheimer’s Association, says researchers are getting close to finding significant answers. “We still have two main obstacles to overcome. First, we need volunteers. … Volunteering to participate in a study is one of the greatest ways someone can help move Alzheimer’s research forward. Second, we need a significant increase in federal research funding.”

The funding disparity could be due to the hidden, almost secretive nature of dementia. Unlike other diseases dubbed “silent killers” such as high blood pressure, colon cancer and diabetes, with dementia it is the disease’s victims who mostly suffer in silence and in the shadows, as if there were something embarrassing or shameful about having the illness.

Dementia’s victims rarely talk about their troubles with friends, associates or even family, such as the man who wrote that he awoke to find his wife crying at the kitchen table while reading my column. That prompted a long-overdue conversation about her dementia symptoms and a decision to seek medical attention.

“I think we both knew she had deteriorated, but we avoided talking about it and tried to ignore the problem the best we could,” he said. “We just never discussed it.”

There’s a difference between acknowledging you have cancer or other diseases and sharing the fact that you are slowly slipping into dementia. But there shouldn’t be.

Share your perspectives, insights and comments with Kent Pollock at kpollock@goldtexter.com.

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