Saturday, June 25, 2016

Alzheimer’s and Veterans

When Jim joined the army and went to Vietnam, my biggest worry was that he wouldn’t come home. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when he got off the plane in Kansas City, never expecting that part of his mind would always remain in the jungle. He had PTSD before it had a name, but even though we didn’t know what to call it, we knew its insidious nature.

Jim went through years of depression. He spent time in a stress unit, trying to deal with the dark feelings that brought him down to lower and lower levels. Jim would sometimes tell me, “You would be better off without me” trying to prepare me when suicide seemed the way out of the living nightmare brought on by PTSD.

The final insult to Jim’s quality of life was when dementia played more havoc with his brain. The odd thing about dementia is that as it robs a person of short-term memory, long-term memory seems more recent. One day in a restaurant, Jim began to sob uncontrollably as he vividly recalled an incident from Vietnam.

I always believed that Jim’s tour of duty had much more to do with his dementia than the VA would ever admit. Researchers agree that a definite link exists between PTSD and dementia.  A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense concluded that veterans with PTSD are 77% more likely to develop dementia than veterans who do not have it.

I’ve been an advocate for Alzheimer’s research for several years. Currently, I am the Alzheimer’s Ambassador for Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler. When I visit the Congresswoman or her staff, I always know they are listening. I’ve often been pleasantly surprised when she goes beyond my expectations.

Today, I read Congresswoman Hartzler’s newsletter and saw an article, “Expanding Alzheimer’s Research.” She proposed an amendment to the FY2017 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research. When proposing the amendment, Hartzler said, “Alzheimer’s is a heartbreaking disease devastating lives, crushing families, and potentially bankrupting our nation.”

In her newsletter, she said, “Studies show our soldiers are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s due to the nature of their service. Focusing research on their conditions can not only help prevent this disease from ravishing our veterans, it can also provide hope for millions of Americans at risk or suffering from the disease.”

The amendment supplements the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program of the Department of Defense Health Program by an additional $5 million, bringing the total to $20 million. The amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill passed on the House floor (282-138) earlier this week.

I am deeply grateful to Vicky Hartzler for looking out for our veterans and the more than five million Americans who currently have Alzheimer’s disease.      
Copyright © June 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Brains Matter

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. The Alzheimer’s Association has released a document listing truths about Alzheimer’s disease. I’m familiar with all the truths, and I’ve been sharing them on social media.

The truth I want to focus on today is that Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. Age is a risk factor and our odds of getting the disease increase as we grow older. Alzheimer’s progressively destroys the brain, relentlessly stripping away reasoning, memory, and personality.

I’ve never really worried too much about my brain as long as it clicks along doing its job efficiently and effectively. Sometimes, I get frustrated when I can’t retrieve an important fact or detail at the time I need the information. At other times, random memories, or thoughts, pop to the forefront, and in my haste to share, I start in the middle of a conversation. It takes awhile for me to realize no one else has a clue as to what I’m talking about, and I need to start at the beginning.

One thing I’ve always noticed is that when I’m stressed, I do not think clearly. While I was reading up on brains this Sunday morning, it became clear that I’m not alone with this problem. Research shows that stress, especially long-term stress or PTSD, affects the white matter of our brains and can cause damage.

Unless white matter does its job unhindered, our brains can’t retrieve all the information stored in our gray matter. The gray matter is where our memories, emotions, speech, and sensory perceptions are stored.

I found a clear example of how white and gray matter work together to make our brain the wondrous organ it is. The gray matter of our brains can be compared to a series of computers and the white matter compared to the network cables that connect the computers together. I found this much more helpful than all the scientific explanations of neurons, glia, and long words that I could never pretend to pronounce.

I’ve always suspected there was a big difference between early onset, or young onset, Alzheimer’s and the effect of the disease on older persons. WebMD had an article that talked about how early onset Alzheimer’s can damage the white matter of the brain and how this damage can be undetected. Early onset affects several parts of the brain and can begin with reasoning, planning, and problem solving, but Alzheimer’s later in life may first be noticed as memory loss.

Research shows that a healthy diet, exercising your body and brain (puzzles, anyone?), and social interaction help keep your brain doing what brains should do. The bottom line is that our brain matter matters!

Copyright © June 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What’s Right Is Right

I was raised to believe that it was a mark of character to treat everyone as equals and to always consider myself as an equal to anyone. Raising a family of eight children was not an easy task in the ’50s and ’60s. My mom and dad both worked hard to see that we were fed and clothed. Extras were not an option. We didn’t have much in worldly possessions, but our parents made sure that each of us kids had a sense of self-worth, and that money or social status didn't make snooty people better than we were. They also taught us to never, ever look down on the less fortunate.

When I married Jim, I married a man with the same principles. Jim strongly  believed in standing up for what was right. He came home from Vietnam with a neck injury that would not heal. After he was discharged, we went to St. Louis to get a service connection. It should have been a slam dunk—but wait—the V.A. had lost his medical records. Jim was smart enough to know he needed representation, and our DAV rep marched back into the records room and returned with Jim’s “lost” medical records in ten minutes.

Jim was tenacious when it came to what is right is right. He entered into a four-decade battle with the V.A. keeping his claim open. During that time, the V.A. Hospital left metal fragments in his neck during surgery, charged our insurance through my employer for service-connected surgery, and treated Jim with a lack of respect. Oh, do you think Jim let them get away with any of those travesties? Not a chance. What’s right is right.

No doubt, Jim learned some of his tenaciousness from his mother, my beloved mother-in-law Virginia. She was a bulldog when it came to equal and fair treatment for her children. The adjective that describes her best is feisty. Virginia, who served her husband and family with love and devotion, was often known to say, “What’s sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander.” She believed in the Golden Rule, and wouldn’t stand quietly by when it came to injustice.

I never had Jim or Virginia’s constant tenaciousness. Mine is more sporadic and, you might say, mission oriented. One of my missions involves being an Alzheimer’s advocate.

I’ve discovered going the extra distance makes a difference. As an advocate for Alzheimer’s, I’ve learned that working in the system can bring about amazing results. I’ve seen a lot of change during my 16 trips to D.C. as an Alzheimer’s advocate and ambassador. We had only small successes for the first 14 years.

However, in the past week, we advocates received two exciting pieces of news. The U.S. Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee approved our requested $400 million increase in Alzheimer’s research funding for FY2017. In addition, the Health Outcomes, Planning, and Education (HOPE) for Alzheimer’s Act (S. 857/H.R. 1559) has been included in the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services (Labor-HHS) Appropriations Committee FY2017 Funding Bill. The HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act addresses a critical gap in care and support. Both of these pieces of legislation will help rectify some of the inequities of the past when Alzheimer’s was swept under the proverbial carpet, and five million Americans and their families were left without hope.  

As an advocate, I’ve worked with good people in both major political parties. This is one reason I try to stay out of political discussions on Facebook or in the news. Sometimes I have to sit on my hands, and I’ve deleted a lot of sites from my newsfeed.

An item popped up this morning that just underscored that goose and gander sauce still isn’t the same. The big news today is how much Hillary Clinton spends on her clothes. To be completely politically unbiased, Sarah Palin went through the same scrutiny. Have you ever once seen how much a male candidate pays for his custom suits, silk ties, or shoes? Well, I haven’t. What’s right is right.

Injustice and inequalities will always exist. Sometimes we can only chip away at one small thing at a time. One of the lessons I’ve learned from people I truly admire is that what’s sauce for the goose, should be equal to the sauce for the gander.

I’m not the world’s greatest cook, but I know a little bit about making sauce. For it to be good, it takes careful preparation. It must be mixed perfectly from the right ingredients, stirred as needed, left to simmer, and then stirred again. If done perfectly, it turns out just right.

Copyright © June 2016 by L.S. Fisher