Eighty-nine thousand people in South Carolina, alone, are living with Alzheimers and over the next six years that number is expected to jump by 35 percent, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in South Carolina, which has the highest death rate from that disease in the nation.
But there’s also a lot of support locally that families need to know about, as well as promising new research that may very well help you ward off the illness.
And this past month there have been some breakthroughs in both early diagnosis and possible prevention.
John Paxton, 80, of Greenville, has been living with Alzheimer’s for a decade.
“My father and my grandfather were both in a mental institution for years and they both died there,” said Paxton.
His wife, Lillian Paxton, said what makes John’s case different from his father and grandfather (who both died in their 60s) is early detection.
“I think we’re very fortunate, and I think its because of doing something early, instead of putting your head in the sand. I mean you have to face it. No one even tried to help them. No one knew how to help them. It was a dead end road,” she said.
Today, there is hope.
Dr. John Absher with the Dementia and Neuro-Behavoir Assessement Clinic at Prisma Health in Greenville (formerly GHS) said recent discoveries about Alzheimer’s are more promising than ever.
“This is a good time to be involved with Alzheimer’s research because we are turning over a lot of new information, I think we’re starting to see some progress as far as diagnostic tests and things like that,” said Dr. Absher.
His research focuses on a possible link between concussions and Alzheimers, one of hundreds of studies throughout the nation on various aspects of the disease.
This past month, two promising results were released: One, is a blood test found to accuratly diagnose one type of genetically related Alzheimer’s up to 16 years early.
The other is a possible breakthrough in preventing cognitive decline that Beth Sulkowski with the Alzheimer’s Association says could impact us all.
“So the result of the study found that when blood pressure was very tightly controled to 120 over 80, that it reduced the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment in about 20 percent of the participants, which is the most definite finding that we’ve seen so far,” said Sulkowski.
“The benefit to the target population was so great that they ethically had to stop the study so that the placebo group could begin doing the things that were benefiting the rest of the participants,” she added.
The Johns Hopkins report published in the journal neurology also found if a specific blood pressure medicine was used a potassium sparing diuretic the Alzheimer’s risk dropped by 75 percent.
And lowering blood pressure may not be the only key to preventing cognitive decline. Other recent research points to dental healththat helps to ward off infections from bacteria and viruses.
“We don’t understand how the interaction works and why and to what extent inflamation plays a role, but it does seem to be playing a role,” said Dr. Absher
Whatever the cause, and for John Paxton, doctors believe his case is genetic, the Alzheimer’s Association is committed to helping families.
A support group called Connections in Greenville brings together patients and caregivers connecting families like the Paxtons with others going through the same challenges.
There’s also a 24/7 helpline (800) 272-3900 and countless programs that educate and assist.
The Paxtons believe both medication and staying active have slowed the disease.
“John Plays bridge,” said Lillian Paxton.
“I sing in the choir at church,” said John Paxton.
“Get involved and do what you can, and don’t look at it as a death sentence. Look at is as a challenge,” said Lillian Paxton.
In the Paxtons’ perspective, Alzheimer’s has shown them just how prescious the moments are together, even as the memories fade.
For more on the resources that can help families, early signs of Alzheimer’s, and research studies visit www.alz.org