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Updated Mar 16, 2017 - 9:33 am

Arizona doctors work to shed stigma of Alzheimer’s disease, speed up diagnoses

(Flickr/Borya)
LISTEN: Arizona doctors work to shed stigma of Alzheimer’s disease

This is the second of a five-part, weeklong series studying how Alzheimer’s disease can affect you, no matter your age. Read the other parts here

PHOENIX – Nearly every minute in this country someone is hearing the words: “You have Alzheimer’s disease.”

The disease is so prevalent that experts who are on the frontlines of finding a cure fear it could become a trillion-dollar monster by the year 2050 if it is not stopped within the next decade.

But doctors say that can easily be done from our own homes, simply by identifying and reporting the disease in our own family circles.

Just as we do with newborns, Dr. Maribeth Gallagher with Hospice of The Valley said individuals should take elderly family members into their doctor for regular wellness visits.

“So much emphasis is on youth, that as we move towards the dying process, we don’t even have conversations with it, do we?” she asked. “How many conversations about death do we have without somebody laughing and saying, ‘You’re bringing me down.’”

It’s that mindset, she noted, that prevents millions of Americans with mild to full-blown dementia from receiving proper medical care in a timely manner.

At Banner Health Alzheimer’s Institute, geriatric psychiatrist Anna Burke helps hundreds of Arizona patients with dementia.

Burke said of the patients they treat, “statistics tell us we only diagnose about 20 to 30 percent of all (dementia) cases in general.”

Of those who finally get a proper Alzheimer’s diagnoses, she said, “only about seven percent will actually [receive] appropriate treatment.”

And, in many misdiagnosed cases, that meant the patient was likely taking medication that could be harmful for their memory, she said.

Both Burke and Gallagher said they suspect a number of reasons for the lack of reporting and poor diagnosis.

“People are walking around maybe feeling embarrassed or stigmatized,” Gallagher said. “When if they went to the right clinician they could find a way to remedy the situation or get the good support.”

But doctors, including Drs. Edward Zamrini and Pierre Tariot at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, believe that getting a better understanding of what causes Alzheimer’s may help reduce the stigma.

Zamrini and Tariot said there are not one, but two different types of Alzheimer’s disease: The “genetic” kind and the “sporadic” kind.

The genetic kind is “transmitted from generation to generation to generation in people who have specific genetic abnormalities” and is fatal, Zamrini said. But it only accounts for less than five percent of all Alzheimer’s cases.

The remaining 95 percent of Alzheimer’s cases typically deal with the sporadic kind, which carries a different gene variation, often referred to as alleles.

If the allele shows up in the gene coding with a specific type of protein, Tariot explained, “it raises the risk of having Sporadic Alzheimer’s disease. Not a 100 percent, but to a spectacularly high level.”

Tariot said knowing this fact “is a very powerful tool for identifying people who are at risk and, therefore, might benefit from early intervention.”

If you have Alzheimer’s in your family history, whether it was a direct parent, a grandparent or another relative, and there are subtle signs of forgetfulness, Gallagher encourages people to shed the stigma and seek help.

Fortunately, living in Arizona, we have a strong network of Alzheimer’s experts who are waiting to help the patient, the caregivers and the families cope and better understand the disease.

KTAR News’ Kathy Cline contributed to this report. 


More Alzheimer’s disease resources:

Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium

The Banner Alzheimer’s Institute

Barrow Neurologica Institute

Translational Genomics Research Institute

University of Arizona Health Sciences Alzheimer’s Research

Arizona State University Bio Design Institute

Hospice of the Valley

Duet Partners In Health and Aging

The Alzheimer’s Association