Alzheimer's strikes fear in the hearts of many because one of its apparent risk factors — aging — is common to all. Also, scientists seem no closer to a cure despite the focus of many researchers over many years.
A new study about to be published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease indicates scientists may have been thinking about the disease incorrectly. Rather than something that can be cured, the assumption perhaps should be that Alzheimer's is a condition attached to aging that can be prevented and controlled.
But while scientists continue to struggle with understanding this illness, Utahns need to come to grips with its effects. Members of a task force charged with identifying the issues surrounding Alzheimer's met recently with the Health and Human Services Interim Committee at the state Legislature. Their report was sobering. The entire nation is aging, but Utah is projected to have the highest growth rate of Alzheimer's of all states. Over the next 14 years, the increase is projected at 127 percent.
Lawmakers are limited as to what they can do about this. Regrettably, it is impossible to outlaw the disease. But they can appropriate money toward campaigns that make people more aware of the problem and of its warning signs. Also, the state could do more to attract a board-certified geriatric psychologist, of which there is none in Utah, officials said. Treatment and care also deserves attention.
Experts agree that early diagnosis and intervention can make a difference. The thrust of the study published by the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease is that researchers may be able to develop drugs to either delay or contain the disease, rather than to erase it once it has taken hold. That sort of approach demands an awareness of early warning signs.
Many people already are aware of Alzheimer's devastating results. They also are aware of how difficult it is to find quality care that is affordable and readily available. According to the task force, the vast majority of families with an Alzheimer's patient care for that person at home. This becomes increasingly difficult as the patient loses control of faculties, becomes prone to wandering from home or undergoes profound changes in personality. In-home care can become so stressful and time-consuming that it leads to feelings of guilt as resentments flair.
These realities need to be addressed by lawmakers as state residents increasingly encounter the disease in aging loved ones.
Isolated scientific studies are not definitive. Just because some researchers feel a cure for Alzheimer's is not likely, that doesn't mean it is necessarily so. Mankind has found cures and devised inventions that certainly would strain the imaginations of our past generations.
Utah policy makers, however, must proceed as if no cure is coming. If Utah does experience a wave of new Alzheimer's patients, the economic and societal impacts ought to be planned for and addressed.
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