Sunday, December 13, 2009

Alzheimer’s Support Group: HBO Screening

We watched Momentum in Science Part II at our last support group meeting. When a new person entered the room and introduced herself, she said, “My dad is in the film.” She didn’t know if he was in the segment we were going to watch. I sat close to her and ask her to let us know if he was in this segment. Toward the end, she said, “That’s my dad.”

I had watched the entire HBO Project before, but picked up more information from the second viewing. An interesting chapter in this part was the DeMoe family story. Six siblings are being studied to try to learn more about familial early-onset Alzheimer’s. Out of the six, only Karla does not have the gene that will cause the type of Alzheimer’s that ended their father’s life at age 58. My heart ached for the five with the disease, but the saddest person was Karla. She has taken on responsibility for her brothers and sisters and already misses them as they spiral into the Alzheimer’s abyss.

Researchers believe they can find more effective treatments and possibly an immunization. The immunization trial was put on hold after some of those studied developed encephalitis. Immunization showed promise. It did a marvelous job of removing plaque, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

When we think about diseases that have been eradicated by immunization, it would seem this would be the best case scenario for Alzheimer’s. It would certainly mean a life-changing difference for families like the DeMoe’s who have a new generation with a 50/50 chance of developing Alzheimer’s.

Dementia is devastating for the entire family. Karla is as much a victim of Alzheimer’s as her siblings. She is more aware of their personality erosion than they are. Her siblings will make peace with the disease, but Karla has already begun to grieve their losses.

Each person with dementia is an individual whose life has been decimated. The effects of Alzheimer’s types of dementia explodes outward with the power of a bomb blast and attempts to destroy the lives of those closest to ground zero.

My life was forever changed with Jim’s dementia. And as heart wrenching as Jim’s disease was for me, I think about the DeMoes and my friend Karen Henley whose husband Mike has familial Alzheimer’s. Karen’s life has been forever changed by her husband’s illness, and she must carry a burden in her heart for the possibility that her children may not be safe from the same disease. How much lighter would her burden be if an immunization could protect her children?

During discussion following the screening, we talked about some of the people who had taken part in experimental treatments. The immunization study consisted of giving several small doses of the drug. One woman whose husband received the injections said, “People kept asking how he was and we would say he is holding.” Holding is about as good as it gets with Alzheimer’s. The couple was disappointed and angry when the treatment ended.

Jim was on an experimental drug. I asked my sons for their opinion before enrolling Jim in the Phase III trial. My youngest son said, “Dad would be the first person to want to try it.” Jim was on the drug several months, but it had too many side effects and was never approved.

“My dad has changed so much since the film was made,” our guest at support group said. “He is frailer now.” I knew what she meant. Over the ten years Jim had the disease, his physical appearance changed dramatically.

Families like the DeMoes and Henleys are in the minority. Most people do not know the reality of living with dementia until it strikes their family. Jim was the first and, thankfully so far, the only person in his family to develop the rare form of dementia he had.

According to the film, Alzheimer’s is the second most dreaded disease after cancer. More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s and the number of cases is expected to double every twenty years. Researchers are exploring many promising avenues, and work diligently toward changing Alzheimer’s from a hopeless disease to a manageable one.


For information about drug trials or to become Alzheimer’s advocate visit
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