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Improving the quality of life for Alzheimer's patients through early diagnosis


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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — It's the last frontier in modern science. Doctors and researchers are still struggling to understand the complicated network that is the brain and why it malfunctions. However, they are making strides to unmask Alzheimer's disease and lift the stigma attached to it.

Tom and Ellen Payzant have accepted his Alzheimer's diagnosis. Yet they try to live life fully. Tom says, "If I've got some cognitive issues that's one thing, but I don't feel like I'm in bad shape otherwise."

Ellen agrees and suggests it is time to start talking openly about the disease and the diagnosis. "People need to know that it is not necessarily a death knell at the beginning, that people can live a healthy life for a long time."

Tom Payzant is a lifelong educator and school superintendent who led districts across the country. In retirement, he and Ellen have learned valuable lessons about Alzheimer's. We now know that "people need to look forward and think about next steps," says Ellen.

Dr. Norman Foster is the director of the University of Utah's Center for Alzheimer's Care, Imaging and Research. He strongly believes that, "Understanding the disease does help … that this is not something that is just a normal part of the aging process." Foster opened the center a decade ago in the middle of Utah's "Silver Tsunami." Between 2000 and 2010, a fast-growing senior population sparked a 45 percent rise in Alzheimer's cases.

Better understanding of Alzheimer's through early diagnosis is a primary goal of the center. According to Foster, "You can use the latest techology to know precisely the cause of a patient's symptoms and how it is affecting them and their brain."

As Foster examines amyloid PET scans of both healthy and damaged brains, he advises, "It's important to know what part of the brain is spared as well as what is damaged."

By determining precisely what's going on inside the brain, doctors can tailor care to individual patients. "Alzheimer's disease affects different people in different ways. The diversity of the disease is remarkable," says Foster.

One program at the University of Utah Center for Alzheimer's Care is the use of health educators like Liz Garcia-Leavitt, a licensed clinical social worker. She says, "Alzheimer's is a journey. Life does not end at diagnosis."

Garcia-Leavitt takes the journey with diagnosed Alzheimer's patients and their family and friends … otherwise known as their support team. During a meeting with Tom and Ellen, Garcia-Leavitt asks Tom how he's doing? Tom says, "You know what my biggest problem is? I can no longer drive a car." Garcia-Leavitt is sympathetic saying, "That's so frustrating." And Tom agrees. "That drives me nuts but I'm coming to grips with it. She (Ellen) is a wonderful driver."

In fact, Ellen is the captain of Tom's support team and his biggest cheerleader. "He is still really on target when you talk about education basically and what he's done," says Ellen.

Foster understands the ripple effect of an Alzheimer's diagnosis. "It's a very personal disease. It not only affects the person with the illness but all of those around them and not jut family members but communities."

It affects communities and states like Utah, where another "tsunami" is brewing. Here, the Alzheimer's Association predicts the number of people diagnosed with the disease will jump from 29,000 this year to almost 42,000 in 2025. The picture nationally is even more shocking. Right now, someone develops Alzheimer's every 67 seconds.

Garcia-Leavitt says, "You're likely to live for years and years after a diagnosis, and what you can change is the quality of life." Tom and Ellen are busy following that advice. On the calendar are family gatherings, trips to the symphony and workouts at the gym.

There is still no cure, but science has given Alzheimer's patients the desire to embrace the future. Ellen says, "We do what we can to keep busy and active and keep our minds busy and active."

Foster's research into PET imaging shows that it can distinguish between Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. That is why he is fighting to get the scans covered by Medicare. If you would like more information on the University of Utah's Center for Alzheimer's Care, Imaging, and Research, go to their website here.



Sandra Olney


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