The Long Goodbye: Losing a Loved One to Alzheimer’s Disease

Two weeks ago my mother-in-law passed away. Unfortunately, she had started leaving us long before her body finally gave out. She had Alzheimer’s disease. It started 7 years ago. At first we noticed that she was repeating herself. Then, she would get uncomfortable and disoriented when she left her house. She came to visit our family out in Oregon and every morning she would pack her bag and announce that it was time to go back home.

She loved to eat chocolate ice cream for dessert. After having her nightly treat she would ask for it again, forgetting that she had already eaten it. Then the opposite started happening: She forgot how to eat and drink. That is what finally brought about her death.

The entire process of the disease was slow and painful for her loved ones. Watching such a dynamic, brilliant woman slip away was so difficult. We have no idea what it was like for her, since communication was virtually impossible. However, every once in a while she would say something that gave a glimmer of the person she had been. It would last only a moment.

Alzheimer’s disease is something that we all dread. It is estimated that over 5 million people suffer from this devastating disease. As we baby boomers age, the incidence is increasing. If nothing changes, twenty percent of the population will have Alzheimer’s disease by 2050.

Fortunately, there is ongoing research that may change that statistic. There are several studies that look promising. Read on.
Promising new approaches

1. A psoriasis drug. A drug that is currently used for psoriasis called Stelara has been found to improve cognitive impairment and amyloid plaques in mice that are bred to develop Alzheimer’s. Inflammation leading to deposits of beta amyloid is thought to be at the root of this disease. Stelara is a super strong medication that treats autoimmune disease and reduces inflammation Human trials are soon to follow.

2. A diabetes drug. One of the other possible causes of this disease is the brain becoming resistant to insulin. In theory, a diabetes medication called metformin should halt and possibly reverse cognitive impairment. In fact, a study done in 2008 found that patients with diabetes and Alzheimer’s showed cognitive improvement after being on metformin.

3. IV antibodies. A small study done in Canada found that Alzheimer’s patients treated with intravenous immunoglobulin showed no further cognitive decline after three treatments. Researchers believe that the antibodies in the immunoglobulin halted the inflammation that causes beta amyloid to form in the brain. Further clinical trials on this promising treatment are ongoing.

Some of the things that we know can help right now to prevent Alzheimer’s are eating a heart healthy diet, exercising, and challenging our brains. Learn a new language, find a new way to work or learn ballroom dancing. All of these things will help. Hopefully in the future we can cure this devastating disease, and then none of us will have to endure the long goodbye, which is beautifully explained in this quote:

“She is leaving him, not all at once, which would be painful enough, but in a wrenching succession of separations. One moment she is here, and then she is gone again, and each journey takes her a little farther from his reach. He cannot follow her, and he wonders where she goes when she leaves.” – Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad


Learn about current treatments for Alzheimer’s disease in this video with neurologist Greg Petsko, MD.

Have you lost a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease? Do you have any advice for people living through the struggle now? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Robin Miller

Dr. Robin Miller, Sharecare Editorial Advisory Board Member, currently practices Internal Medicine and serves as the medical director of Triune Integrative Medicine, a highly innovative Integrative Medicine clinic in Medford, Oregon. She has produced the award-winning health series, “Is there a Doctor in the House,” which is shown nationwide on the GE-sponsored Patient Channel, and is the author of "Kids Ask the Doctor" and the co-author of “The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife and Beyond: A No-Nonsense Approach to Staying Healthy after 50".

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