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Lifestyle/Community

Alzheimers unfairly becomes in-word

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Robyn Sassen

 

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY WWW.VOLUNTEERLOCAL.COM

 

Gerontological specialist Lorraine Schirlinger says she usually begins her talks by asking by show of hands how many people in the audience know someone with Alzheimer’s disease. “In 10 to 15 years’ time, every hand will go up,” she said.

Approximately 100 people attended her recent talk at Second Innings in Johannesburg, entitled “My Friend Has Alzheimer’s”.

“People are being informed about the disease,” she said, adding that the increase in sufferers has to do with being diagnosed earlier and being able to make informed decisions. “People are learning what it means to be screened and what it implies if you are diagnosed.” Schirlinger is currently the regional director of Alzheimer’s SA.

She began her career at Wits University where she studied nursing, specialising in gerontology. Her specialisation developed, as did her leadership skills and today she trains nurses in the field, but also addresses the public.

“What is worrying is that Alzheimer’s is currently the ‘in-word’. Some house doctors are not diagnosing dementia as dementia and they are slapping the term Alzheimer’s on any memory loss condition which might not necessarily be true.

“The condition of vascular dementia, for instance, is not Alzheimer’s and not only is it preventable, but it is treatable. It stems from high blood pressure.

“Alzheimer’s has, however, been diagnosed in patients from as young as 45,” she added. “There is no cure, no treatment. There are medications that slow the progress of the disease, but they are not without side effects. It’s a very slow disease, and patients – and their loved ones – can suffer with it for up to 20 years.

“Some doctors use a mini-mental status examination as a benchmark to diagnose the illness; some do an MRI.  In Alzheimer’s there is a physical shrinking of the brain itself and a distinct change in chemical activity. Neurons feeding the brain actually die. Scientists, have not yet established the cause of this disease, but know what is happening physiologically.

“A diagnosis usually follows an incident that interferes with a patient’s daily life,” she added. “When you look back on when the memory loss could have started, it’s often long before.”

Speaking of research into the illness, she confirmed that there are no bio-markers that can be used to identify it. “This is what they are looking at achieving by the end of this year. To date, there are over 2,2 million people in South Africa who have been diagnosed.

“It is a privilege for me to give people empowerment,” she says, commenting on the work she does with both patients and their loved ones.

“It can be a very trying disease, but I try to encourage people to see the funny side of it. You need to teach people to have a sense of humour.”

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