The Dementia Rate May Be Falling—And What It Means

Two major new studies have turned the popular perception of dementia on its head. For years, we’ve heard that Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are on the rise—a prediction that strikes fear in the hearts of both the public and policymakers. But these new reports conclude that dementia rates may be falling, and suggest that some forms of the disease may be preventable.

The studies do not say that dementia will be less of a problem in the future than it is today. Indeed, as 77 million Baby Boomers reach their 80s, millions more people will suffer from these cognitive diseases. But if the reports are correct, the likelihood of developing these illnesses in old age is far lower than many thought.

Lessons We Can Learn From Frontline’s Expose of Assisted Living

This week, the PBS program Frontline investigated care at the nation’s largest assisted living company—Emeritus Corp.  The program’s message was powerful—and highly controversial:  Residents of some Emeritus facilities are dying as a result of poor care by insufficient and poorly trained staff and a lack of government regulation.

I can’t speak to what’s happening at Emeritus, a for-profit company that has 50,000 beds in 480 facilities in 45 states. But I spend a lot of time in assisted living facilities and wrote in May about what consumers need to know about choosing one.

After watching this show, I’d like to share some important take-aways:

Stop Hyping Alzheimer’s Cures, Learn to Care for People Who Have the Disease

You can’t escape the seemingly ubiquitous news stories about the latest cure for Alzheimer’s. There is only one problem: None of them are true.

Some are simply frauds. But many are over-hyped interpretations of serious research. You know the story…In what may be a major breakthrough in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease…

Over at Dr. Al Power wrote a terrific blog post the other day about how wishful thinking–and not a little greed–has combined to overwhelm good science when it comes to dementia research. We so want to believe in a cure that we are prepared to believe every rumor, false lead, or half-baked study that suggests a solution is near.   

Drugs, Dementia and Nursing Homes

The overuse of antipsychotic drugs “is one of the most common and longstanding, but preventable practices causing serious harm to nursing home residents today,” Toby Edelman of the Center for Medicare Advocacy told the Senate Aging Committee last week.

She said these drugs are often used off-label (that is: for purposes other than the ones for which the FDA approved them) and that overuse both costs Medicare hundreds of millions of dollars and harms patients.  

Last year, an investigation by the federal Department of Health & Human Services inspector general found that 14 percent of nursing home residents were prescribed anti-psychotics but 8 in 10 were off-label, and, thus, not for treatment of mental illness.

The Obama Administration’s War on Alzheimer’s

On Monday, a presidential advisory group set a goal to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s Disease by 2025. There is much to like about this proposal, but it should come with a consumer warning: There is a lot less to this plan than meets the eye.

Let’s start with the good news. This initiative is potentially an important step forward as the nation confronts Alzheimer’s and other dementias that currently effect more than 5 million Americans–a number that will nearly triple by mid-century. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 40 percent of those 85 and older will suffer from some form of dementia before they die.    

Walter Mosley On Becoming Marginalized in Old Age

Yesterday, I participated in an AARP program with several authors of books on caregiving. One fellow panelist, the novelist Walter Mosley, was wonderfully provocative as he reflected on what he calls “the great equalizing effect of great age.” Mosley, whose mother was Jewish and whose father was black, put it this way:  “White people become black people when they can no longer care for themselves.”  The older you get, he added, “the more you move into the Third World–” marginalized by the rest of society.

Coach Pat Summitt and Alzheimer’s

Read this powerful story by Sally Jenkins about University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, who, at 59, was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.  Despite the disease, the legendary coach says, “You don’t quit living. You keep going.”

In fact, Summitt isn’t even planning on quitting coaching–at least not for a while. For now, she’ll rely on her assistants to help manage games. While she is still in the early stages of the disease, it is not clear how long she’ll be able to remain on the sidelines.

The Importance of Early Dementia Diagnosis

The other day, I had a long talk with a friend about her mom. My friend lives on the East Coast. Her mother lives in the Midwest. Mom is in an independent living apartment and recently has been falling and suffering memory lapses. The other day, mom got lost trying to drive home from her regular bridge game.  

My friend realizes it is time for her mother to get more help and they have discussed the possibility of her moving closer to her daughter. But, my friend asked, which care facility would be best?