The search for an end to Alzheimer’s disease is one that continues to lead researchers and medical professionals into new frontiers as they search for a cure. The statistics are startling. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the disease is currently affecting more than 5 million Americans. Here in The Natural State, nearly 60,000 Arkansans have been diagnosed with the disease.
While the numbers seem discouraging, Kirsten Dickins, the executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, is determined to find hope in the progress made each day through research, prevention and education. And for Dickens, the battle against Alzheimer’s is personal.
Dickens lost her grandmother to the disease in the ’90s, and later she and her husband lost his grandmother to Alzheimer’s when the couple moved to Little Rock. Dickins experienced what it was like to lose a loved one and at the same time saw the toll the disease can take on caregivers.
“My mother and her sisters were the caregivers along with my grandfather for my grandmother,” Dickins says. “That made a really, really deep impression on me at the time. Not only was I dealing with my own personal loss of who I knew as my grandmother and watching her personality change, I was watching it as a child and how that relationship and dynamic was changing not only with my mother but with my grandfather.”
Dickins jumped at the opportunity to join the Arkansas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association more than a year ago. It gave her the chance to marry her personal experience with the disease along with her professional background in fundraising and business development. Working with the association has also led to a greater understanding of the disease and the steadfast hope that a cure will be realized in our lifetime.
At the foundation of that hope is research. Knowing that a cure will come through science, the association invests heavily in funding research studies that will help connect the dots to find effective treatments and even a cure. The Alzheimer’s Association is the third largest funder of Alzheimer’s research in the world, second only to the U.S. and Chinese governments.
One exciting new study the Alzheimer’s Association is actively involved in is the U.S. Pointer Study. It’s a two-year lifestyle study that evaluates whether lifestyle interventions that simultaneously target multiple risk factors protect cognitive function in older adults who are at increased risk for cognitive decline.
Here in Arkansas, there’s a new study being conducted in collaboration with faculty at the University of Arkansas and Neurotrack. The study aims to determine diagnostic tools by using cell phones to track and examine retina patterns and sight to potentially help diagnose dementia.
The Alzheimer’s Association offers a wide variety of services, both for people who are living with the disease and caregivers. Providing them with the resources and education they need to navigate the disease is at the forefront of what the organization does. There are two Alzheimer’s Association locations in Arkansas — one in Little Rock and one in Rogers – but the chapter serves the whole state with the help of an army of generous and passionate volunteers.
One of the association’s core resources is its 1-800 help line that’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are master-level clinicians on the other end who can help connect callers to resources, or if a loved one is threatening to wander or is combative, the clinicians can give caregivers the tools and steps to help diffuse the situation. The association is also committed to providing community education.
“You can be a bank teller and you may realize that you are interacting with people who have dementia and you aren’t really sure how to handle that,” Dickins says. “We offer training on how to recognize the signs and symptoms or communication skills so that you don’t escalate the situation.”
The association also offers a wide variety of resources for caregivers, a crucial piece of the struggle. The association estimates that there are more than 16 million people in the country who are caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. In Arkansas, that estimate is 170,000 caregivers providing unpaid care. The Alzheimer’s Association can help connect caregivers with support groups, grants for respite care or help navigate the system to find financial aid.
With statistics as staggering as these, Dickins likes to tell people that you don’t have to wait to be a caregiver or a patient to be affected and touched by this disease. Alzheimer’s doesn’t discriminate and its effects are wide-reaching.
“There’s a place for everyone at every stage of life to get involved in the Alzheimer’s Association because what we know is that the incidence level is increasing rapidly,” she says. “More and more individuals at different ages are having to experience this firsthand. I was a child watching my parent have to care for a loved one and that made a very deep impression. And in many cases, it’s affecting family finances and opportunities. Sometimes those grandkids have to end up being caregivers. It’s not just a senior population problem.”
Over the last 20 years, society has seen great strides toward a world without the disease. In 1993, researchers identified risk factor genes and the FDA approved the first Alzheimer’s drug. In 2004, researchers shared their first report on Pittsburgh compound B, which could help in disease monitoring and early detection. And in 2017, there was a historic $400 million increase for federal Alzheimer’s disease research funding signed into law, bringing annual funding to $1.4 billion.
There are also prevention methods at play. While it’s not guaranteed, certain lifestyle choices, such as physical activity and diet, may help support brain health and prevent Alzheimer’s. Dickins had the opportunity to hear from a researcher speaking on a panel to association staff. When asked about progress towards finding a cure, the researcher said, “What we want you to know is that the science is working.”
“I think all of us in the room were just like, ‘Okay. I’m going to go back to work now,’” Dickins says. “It’s inspiring. It means that we need to keep pushing forward, but we’re not on the wrong track. There’s hope. I think that’s the message — hope this won’t necessarily be plaguing us in the same way it is now in 20 years.”
10 Ways to Love Your Brain
(and help prevent Alzheimer’s)
- Break a sweat. Several studies have found an association between physical activity and reduced risk of cognitive decline.
- Hit the books. Continuing education in any stage of life will help reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
- Butt out. Evidence shows smoking increases the risk of cognitive decline.
- Take care of your heart. Research shows that risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke — such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes — negatively impact your cognitive health.
- Heads up. Brain injury can raise your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. So wear a seat belt, use a helmet when cycling and take steps to prevent falls.
- Eat right. Eating a healthy and balanced diet that is lower in fat and higher in vegetables and fruit can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
- Catch some z’s. Getting enough sleep helps with memory and thinking.
- Take care of your mental health. Some studies link a history of depression with increased cognitive decline, so seek help if you experience symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns.
- Challenge yourself. Activate your mind with puzzles, art, games of strategy and other mind-engaging activities. Challenging your mind may have short- and long-term benefits for your brain.
- Stay social. Socialization may help support brain health. Find ways to be part of your local community by joining a group that shares similar interests with you.
Know the 10 Warning Signs
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
They may forget important dates or events, ask for the same information again and again or increasingly need family members for things they used to handle on their own.
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
They may have trouble following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly bills.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home or work
They may have trouble driving to a familiar location or forgetting the rules of a favorite game.
- Confusion with time or place
They may forget where they are or how they got there.
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
They may have difficulty reading, judging distance and determining color.
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
They may have trouble finding the right word or call things by the wrong name (i.e. calling a watch a “hand-clock”).
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
They may lose things and accuse others of stealing.
- Decreased or poor judgement
They may pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean.
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
They may have trouble keeping up with a favorite team or hobby.
- Changes in mood and personality
They can become confused, suspicious, fearful, depressed or anxious.