08/04/10 — Conference: Hope exists for growing Alzheimer's problem

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Conference: Hope exists for growing Alzheimer's problem

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 4, 2010 1:46 PM

With an estimated 5 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer's disease, early diagnosis is imperative, said the keynote speaker at the seventh annual Caregiver Education Conference hosted by Alzheimer's North Carolina Inc. on Tuesday.

Dr. Dan Kaufer, associate professor of neurology at UNC and director of the UNC Memory Disorders Program, is also co-director of the newly-formed Carolina Alzheimer's Network.

"We want to diagnose people as early as possible so that they'll stay in the mild to moderate category," he said. "We want to identify people before they even get onto this chart, people who are going to get Alzheimer's disease before any symptoms show up ... That means catching Alzheimer's disease before the first clinical symptoms occur."

Should that happen, Kaufer suggests that in the "not-too-distant future that we'll have tools that will prevent Alzheimer's from occurring, we'll have the capacity of nipping it in the bud."

In the meantime, the number of Alzheimer's cases has been steadily climbing in recent years, he said.

In North Carolina alone, an estimated 132,329 cases of dementia were reported in 2000. So far for 2010, there have been 170,000 cases, or a 31 percent increase.

At that rate, predictions are that by 2025, there will be 253,176, or a 91 percent increase.

"This problem is a big problem now (and) it's going to become astronomical within the next 15 years," he said.

And that doesn't even count the number of caregivers, which Kaufer estimated currently at 311,578. Putting a dollar value on the service, it approaches $3 million, reflecting what a "huge issue" it is, he said.

But the most pervading question the doctor said he hears relates to prevention of Alzheimer's and related dementias.

With many advancements made in screenings and treatments, more are anticipated in the future.

Ultimately, though, the burden of responsibility will fall to primary care doctors, typically the first to deal with the issue.

"Most (patients) see the general practitioner or family doctor and don't see a neurologist or specialist," he said. "So it's these doctors we really need to focus on."

The Carolina Alzheimer's Network was formed to conduct educational outreach programs and train primary care doctors on how to screen and diagnose Alzheimer's, as well as link physicians with other community services.

"I think by getting primary care doctors trained and educated about how to help them link up with community services, this is how we can make the best available use of what we know now," he said.

"We're about a year and a half into this initiative. With the way it's going, it's really up to the primary care doctors to carry this big load."

Tuesday's conference, held at First Pentecostal Church in Goldsboro, drew more than 150 caregivers and professionals from Wayne, Duplin and surrounding areas.

Leslie Lane and Emily Byrd, discharge planners at Wayne Memorial Hospital, work with a number of Alzheimer's patients and line up services for them.

"I came to do networking with other resources and just get general information about Alzheimer's," said Ms. Lane. "And it's a personal thing, too. I have family members, too, with Alzheimer's."

"It's a good outlet for the families and caregivers, so that we can work together and we're all on the same page, coordinating the plan of are for patients when they go home," Ms. Byrd added.

Laurie Cashion from Carolina House of Smithfield, a senior living facility, was among the vendors providing materials and resource information.

"First of all, it's exciting to be part of (the conference), being able to communicate and to work with all my peers, sharing each other's resources, working together for a good cause," she said.

"One of the things we have discussed over the last seven years is there's a tremendous need and a growing need for more education and training for the families and the professionals who work with Alzheimer's patients, and it continues to grow," said Anne Paugh of Alzheimer's North Carolina and one of the conference organizers. "I remind people it's not just the individuals with the disease. The disease affects the whole family."

Formerly known as the Eastern N.C. Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, this past November the board opted to disaffiliate from the national organization in order to focus its time and funding on providing services in eastern North Carolina, said Alice Watkins, executive director.

"Forty percent of our income was being requested by the national association as well as making a lot of other demands, and we made the decision to focus on what our mission was -- to provide programs and services to people in eastern North Carolina," she told the gathering. "We have provided services for eastern N.C. for 28 years. We haven't missed a beat. We have the same staff, the same services, same outreach and same contact information. It's just a new name."