Program Report: Goldie Byrd – Alzheimer’s

 

Judy Kinney, who runs the Durham Center for Senior Life and has been a member of the Club since November, introduced Dr. Goldie Byrd, the project leader for the Alzheimer’s & Dementia Disparities Engagement Network as well as the Executive Director of the Center for Outreach in Alzheimer’s Aging and Community Health (COAACH) at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.  

Dr. Byrd began with some of the basics of the disease. Alzheimer’s, of course, is one type of dementia. There is no cure and nothing that slows down the progression.  The primary risk factor is age…it’s a disease that slowly destroys the brain and may be doing so for 15 years before any symptoms emerge. Ultimately it leads to death. 1 in 3 seniors will die of Alzheimer’s. 

Dr. Byrd was handicapped by having to condense a much longer presentation into 20 minutes, however, she approached it with good humor and several important themes emerged. 

First, if there is anything we can do ourselves to avoid or delay the disease is to TAKE CARE OF OURSELVES. She pointed out that Alzheimer’s is a neurological disease and the best defense is the same thing recommended for cardiovascular disease and lots of other problems that old age can bring with it, that is, healthy diet, exercise, stress reduction and, above all, don’t smoke.  The stress reduction piece of this formula always surprises me, but she pointed out that approaching life cheerfully reduces the chemicals the flood our system and protected us when avoiding saber tooth tigers was a major concern. I guess nobody lived long enough to get Alzheimer’s, which was only identified as a separate disease in 1906. Maintaining close relationships and keeping your mind active is also important. 

The second point was the staggering cost to provide care for both in terms of money and the burdens on the families of victims. 

Third was the disparities, which are the focus of her research at A&T.  Hispanics are 1.5 times as likely to get Alzheimer’s as whites and African-Americans are 2 times as likely. Genetics may be a factor but general access to health care and dietary habits may also be factors.  

Fourth, is the need to focus on and provide support for the caregivers. Professional care of patients can run add up to a hundred thousand dollars annually. Many families must therefore rely on family members for that care.  Two thirds of these caregivers are women. Support and training for caregivers is tremendously important…which explains why the annual luncheon that our Club sponsors is so highly appreciated by the caregivers who attend.  

Finally, adding to the gloomy picture, Dr. Byrd ticked off a number of pharmaceutical companies who had dropped research on potential drugs to cure the disease. And with the baby-boomer generation rapidly moving into the “elderly” category (AGG! I’m pre-baby boom!) the costs and suffering are only going up. Stamping out Polio may end up looking like a walk in the park, as Rotary and others musters support for research and a cure. 

The good news is that the dimensions of the problem are taking shape, especially in the need to support caregivers and recognize the disparities that exist.  We should also be thankful that there are folks like Dr. Byrd who are devoting their professional lives to removing some of that gloom. 

Maybe instead of CART buckets on the tables we should install one of those change counting machines you see in supermarkets in the PNC Triangle Club to remind everyone to bring in those coffee can’s full of pennies sitting on the back of dressers everywhere.    

Submitted by Jay Zenner 

 

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