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Walking to battle Alzheimer's disease

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Every Saturday morning, Hal Gardiner and Bill Van der Borght leave their retirement homes in Sun City Roseville and drive to the town of Dixon to eat blueberry pancakes and visit their wives.

On the way to the residential care home, the two men share the drive and their thoughts about what it's like to lose a spouse to Alzheimer's disease.

A retired engineer, Van der Borght, 79, remembered the worst moment was when he left his wife Mollie at the 36-bed care home. "I felt like the biggest heel on Earth after almost 50 years of marriage," he said.

Gardiner, 81, a retired pilot, recalled the first time he returned home alone without Dorothy. "It dawned on me (that) it's the end of an era," he said.

On Saturday, the Alzheimer's Association will hold its annual Memory Walk to help raise money for research and services. There are an estimated 40,000 people in the greater Sacramento area with Alzheimer's or related dementia. That number is predicted to grow to 140,000 by 2050.

New projections warn that the Alzheimer's epidemic will be worse than anticipated, but doctors remain optimistic about new drugs to slow the progressive deterioration caused by the disease.

Last week,, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration received an endorsement from an advisory group to approve the active ingredient memantine -- the first drug treatment for patients with moderate to severe symptoms.

"It's another step forward," said Dr. William Jagust, director of the Alzheimer's Center at the University of California, Davis, who said most drugs available now are for the treatment of those with mild to moderate disease.

In two studies, the patients who took memantine improved, but the effect was not substantial, Jagust said.

The aging of baby boomers is expected to add greatly to the numbers of Alzheimer's patients. A recent article in the Archives of Neurology predicted the incidence of Alzheimer's will increase by 27 percent by 2020, 70 percent by 2030 and nearly 300 percent by 2050.

The Alzheimer's Association has warned that without more treatments to delay or slow the disease, the epidemic will bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid.

Jagust is optimistic that a treatment will be developed in the next five to 10 years that will make a significant improvement in slowing the disease's progress.

In its upcoming Memory Walk, the Greater Sacramento Area Chapter of the Northern California/ Northern Nevada Alzheimer's Association hopes to raise $150,000 for research and services to patients and their families, said President Tracy Potts.

The association runs a Safe Return program that works with emergency medical personnel to return lost patients to their homes or care facilities.

A 24-hour help line is available for families with questions or a crisis at (800) 660-1993. The association also sponsors support groups.

Gardiner, who is active in the Sun City Roseville support group, said he urges people who believe they may be showing symptoms to see a doctor, because early detection can slow the disease and keep patients home longer.

Van der Borght said he encourages families to purchase a good long-term-care policy. A care facility for Alzheimer's patients can cost thousands of dollars a month.

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