Letnick: Cruelest part of Alzheimer’s is that it has no cure

There are few challenges more frustrating than caring for a loved one suffering from dementia.

There are few challenges more frustrating and painful than caring for a loved one suffering from dementia. Not only because their needs are often so great, but they can seem to become completely different people.

Unfortunately, dementia is far from rare, and touches many families in Canada and B.C. My own family is no different—sadly, my mother-in-law suffers from dementia. We are very lucky that she’s in a caring home and our family sincerely appreciates the support from the government and those at the Alzheimer’s Society. It gives us great comfort to know that neither she nor her primary caregiver is alone in the struggle.

The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s seems to attack the entire brain: It affects both short-term and long-term memory, thinking ability, mood, emotions and behaviour.

The cruelest part of all, however, is that Alzheimer’s has no cure.

Unable to cure the disease, healthcare professionals in B.C. and elsewhere have focused on finding better ways to care for its victims. The provincial government is working on a Dementia Action Plan.

To be released by October of this year, it will include guidelines for dementia care to support caregivers and promote evidence based practice in all care settings.

It will reflect the excellent work that regional health authorities, clinical experts and physician leaders across the province have continued to collaborate to develop and improve evidence-based clinical guidelines, educational resources, and interdisciplinary care teams to better meet the needs of people with dementia.

Finding ways to improve treatment is obviously good news, but some recent work at UBC deserves some attention. Led by Lindsay Lagamatsu, researchers found that twice-weekly resistance training can slow down cognitive decline in seniors with mild cognitive impairment.

These B.C. researchers compared the efficacy of aerobic training, resistance training and balance and tone training. They discovered that in senior women with subjective memory complaints, six months of twice-weekly resistance training improved selective attention, conflict resolution and associative memory.

With impaired associative memory being a sign of the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the research suggests we can make a difference.

This is encouraging news, to say the least, and while they caution that their initial findings shouldn’t be generalized to men or women of other ages, the message is clear: just because there’s no cure today doesn’t mean one isn’t possible. We can do something to fight back against this awful disease. There’s a lot more work to be done, of course, but this research will encourage other researchers to explore the possibilities—and eventually, hopefully, find a cure.

In the meantime, my advice is to keep looking for those early signs of the disease—noticeable memory loss and difficulty with complex tasks such as balancing your chequebook. If you see early signs, contact your primary caregiver and check with your local Alzheimer’s support group.

We may not have a cure, but sure enough, with more research, one may be found in our lifetime.