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Facing the Challenge of Alzheimer's

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Before Glen Campbell became a big country music star, he played behind some of the biggest name stars of the 20th century: the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. Breaking out as a solo act, he won multiple Grammy Awards and released number one hits. He even co-starred with John Wayne in the movie True Grit.

Last year, after decades of performing around the world, Campbell embarked on a farewell tour that including a performance at the Library of Congress. This tour was unlike any other, since Campbell undertook it after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's. The disease robs victims of their memories and eventually causes death. For caregivers, there is severe emotional, physical and financial strain.

The challenge of Alzheimer's is growing as America ages. In 2010, there were 40 million Americans over the age of 65. By 2030 that number will rise to more than 72 million. Since approximately 1 in 8 older Americans suffer from Alzheimer's, the number of those with the disease could top 9 million in the coming decades.

Many in our own community struggle to take care of loved ones with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. This week, I paired with Lancaster General Health to host an informational conference to provide caregivers with knowledge and resources to help them guide their loved ones through this difficult time.

The conference covered the diagnosis of the disease, treatment options, how to pay for care, and resources available to caregivers. Geriatric experts from Lancaster General Hospital, staff from the Alzheimer's Association, the Lancaster County Office of Aging, and an expert from National Institute on Aging all contributed their insights and advice.

While there isn't a cure, there are therapies that can help keep the mind sharp and preserve memories. A few months ago, I visited Magnolias of Lancaster, a facility that specializes in the care of Alzheimer's and other brain disorders. I joined with residents in a Memories in in the Making art program that engages the mind and can help preserve memories.

The Alzheimer's Association also sponsors a peer-to-peer program that brings together seniors with a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer's to help them work through the challenges of the disease together. Information about these programs and others is available at www.alz.org.

There is progress being made on understanding Alzheimer's and trying to reverse its effects. Just a couple months ago, Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health testified before my Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee. He talked about some of the cutting edge research being done right now.

Doctors have been using genetically engineered mice to study how the disease spreads in the brain. They discovered that it moves much like other infections in the body.
Other NIH researchers are testing a drug usually used on cancer patients to see if it can clear away one of the compounds that builds up in the brain and kills cells.

Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services, at the direction of Congress, released a comprehensive plan to help battle Alzheimer's and coordinate research that could lead to a cure.

Currently, we have 21 government agencies, administrations, and departments that play a role in researching and treating Alzheimer's. There are a countless number of research universities and companies working on therapies and cures. Preventing duplication of effort, sharing resources, and disseminating information will be critical to understanding more about this disease and how to fight it.

Glen Campbell isn't letting his diagnosis stop him from continuing to share his music with the world. Right now, he's still on the farewell tour performing with three of his children. Sometimes Glen misses a chord, or the audience fills in a gap in the lyrics. Alzheimer's may be slowing him down, but it isn't stopping him. Not everyone provides Alzheimer's care to a celebrity, but caregivers can learn how to engage their loved ones in constructive ways. There is hope for continuing to build memories, even while fighting this destructive disease.


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