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STORIES ABOUT medical break- throughs are in the news almost every day. New treatments and new drugs show promise. Long-term studies offer lessons in healthy living. Statistics show that these advances are helping Americans live longer.
As a result of their increasing life spans, more people are living long enough to develop the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Notice that I refer to the symptoms of Alzheimer's, because the disease cannot be diagnosed with certainty without an autopsy. Part of geriatric research deals with differentiating between Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
It is human nature to pursue a long life. Back in 1513, explorer Juan Ponce de Leon searched Florida for the legendary fountain of youth. (All of the retirees who move there these days claim that it's because of the weather. I'm not so sure.)
What we are discovering is not necessarily a fountain of youth, but the path to a longer life. And the path leads not to a fountain, but to the world's medical research laboratories. Cancer patients are living longer than ever, many in remission after receiving diagnoses that were virtual death sentences just a few years ago. Perhaps our children will live to see a cancer cure.
Major advancements are also being reported for victims of heart, lung, and kidney diseases. Organ transplants are extending the lives of more Americans every day. Nearly 25,000 transplants were performed in 2002, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
People are also choosing healthier lifestyles. The number of cigarette-smoking Americans declines each year, promising longer life in exchange for rejecting the evil weed.
We are constantly reminded about the health benefits of regular exercise and proper diet.
Technologies such as auto seatbelts and airbags mean people who might have died in traffic accidents aren't.
But at some point we may begin to wonder whether the longer life we instinctively seek is worth living. After someone provides long-term care for an aging parent, or simply visits a nursing home, it's easy to wonder what's so great about living so long.
My parents help illustrate the alternatives. My dad, who was blessed with a big heart, but not the strongest one, died of a heart attack 16 years ago as he slept. He was 70, and alert and active until he died. People have told me that even though he died somewhat young by today's standards, they'd choose to go that way rather than linger in a diminished capacity.
My mom is a 23-year breast cancer survivor who now, at age 84, has been told she's probably suffering from Alzheimer's disease. She is at the point where her memory is just good enough, some of the time, that she is aware of the decline in her cognitive ability. She knows that she has trouble remembering, and it frustrates her.
She has wanted to stay in Baltimore because that's where her friends are, rejecting the notion of moving to either Virginia or New Jersey, where her children are.
She settled on a large, well-known facility in Baltimore several years ago and moved into an independent-living apartment.
After a few years, her ability to keep track of her medications was in doubt, and we couldn't be sure, despite the retirement home's procedures, that she was eating properly everyday.
She moved to an assisted-living apartment where a higher level of care is provided. It was a necessary move, but also a troubling disruption for her at the time, requiring yet another downsizing of her cherished belongings.
After a recent hospital stay, she was transferred to the facility's nursing-care wing, at least temporarily, where residents are monitored and cared for still more closely.
For now, she remains in better shape than many of the other residents, but she must fear that the lack of awareness of so many of the residents around her could be in her future as well.
While my sister and I enjoy some confidence in the care she is receiving, we wonder why society hasn't taken a more proactive approach in dealing with aging Americans.
According to the U.S. Census, about 35 million Americans are currently age 65 or older. That figure is projected to rise to 80 million by 2040. That's an increase from 12.5 percent of the population today to 20.5 percent in 2040.
It's estimated that 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's today, with the cost of their care believed to be approaching $100 billion. By 2040, it's estimated that Alzheimer's patients will number 13 million--with the cost of their care astronomical.
The nation may be woefully unprepared as the baby-boom generation ages and the number of Alzheimer's victims proliferates. It may be up to individuals themselves to stave off Alzheimer's by striving to keep their minds and bodies as active as possible as long as possible.
Perhaps you took note as I did of the Florida couple killed when their private plane crashed on a foggy approach to a Loudoun County airport en route to a Thanksgiving visit with children. He was 84, and no one doubted his competence as a pilot. His wife was 83.
As it is, today's grandparents and great-grandparents are Alzheimer's treatment guinea pigs. Certain vitamins, foods, and lifestyle choices are showing promise in delaying Alzheimer's symptoms. Several medications are emerging that apparently help slow the onset of Alzheimer's, so it is best to administer them as early as possible.
These revelations mean that children and caregivers must recognize certain behaviors as indicators of Alzheimer's, not just as expected signs of aging.
But there is no specific treatment or possible cure for Alzheimer's once a diagnosis is made. Research is ongoing, and the National Institutes of Health releases a comprehensive annual report devoted to the latest knowledge about the disease.
But the report's wording reflects research that has a very long way to go. It thoroughly describes the symptoms, even changes in brain tissue found postmortem. But why some people are affected, and others aren't, remains a mystery.
RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.