At St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, Lena Forsyth was known for being a dedicated nurse diabetes educator. At the age of 55, she was in the prime of her career, hard at work teaching patients and their families how to treat their condition and change their lifestyle. She had a loving husband, Tony, and treasured time with her family. She was involved in the Steilacoom community and was a friendly face at meetings and events.
And then the news dropped on her and her family like a stack of bricks: young-onset Alzheimer’s.
The devastating diagnosis threatened cherished memories of her and Tony’s life together, her own upbringing and her kids growing up. It also meant her heroic work as a diabetes educator would have to end.
Many folks are familiar with Alzheimer’s and the effect it has on the minds of the afflicted. But the loss is far greater than our memories, and extends beyond the person’s family and friends.
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The truth is we are all affected by the outcomes of this unforgiving disease. And that is why we need more investment and resources to find ways to stop it from happening, and better ways to treat those diagnosed.
Lena was at the peak of her productivity, the peak of her earnings potential, and the peak of her industry. This diagnosis not only took her out of her job, but meant Tony must put his career aside as well to care for her. More than one in six Alzheimer’s caregivers end up leaving employment to care for their loved one.
In 2014, 15.7 million family members and friends like Tony provided 17.9 billion hours of care, an economic value of $217 billion. Alzheimer’s takes a severe toll on caregivers, both physically and emotionally. About 40 percent of caregivers suffer from depression, and Alzheimer's and dementia caregivers had $9.7 billion in additional health care costs of their own in 2014.
When Tony describes Lena’s diagnosis, he says it lacked even a shred of hope. To change this, Congress needs to increase access to essential support for families when they are at that early stage. Care-planning services following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can provide much-needed information on treatments, services and support that aim to preserve quality of life for the patients, their family and caregivers.
I co-sponsored the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act to make those services more accessible. We can combine that effort with the hope of scientific advancement towards a cure.
Alzheimer's is the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in America that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed. As our life expectancy goes up, so does our risk of this disease.
While the population of Pierce County has doubled since 1980, Alzheimer’s as a cause of death has shot up to a figure 65 times higher. By 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer's disease may nearly triple to 13.8 million if no medical breakthroughs occur. That’s nearly twice the population of Washington.
A strong, robust research operation will help find ways to prevent the disease and determine effective new treatments. We should invest now and capitalize on the progress of clinical trials currently underway.
We need to give folks like Lena and Tony a better shot once they and their family face an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We need to put our faith in the investments towards medical advancement. And we need to publicly acknowledge both the challenges and heroism of those living with Alzheimer’s, and do all we can to prevent the dangerous rise of this overwhelming disease.
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, represents the 10th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. His father Vic Heck passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease and prostate cancer in 2004. To find out more and get involved, visit the website of the Washington chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association: alz.org/alzwa.