Getting the dope on dementia: Geriatric pharmacist in Port Ludlow outlines dos and don’ts

PORT LUDLOW — Karen McCullough was on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C., when the woman seated next to her suddenly stood up, put on her jacket and hat and headed for the door.

“She said she had stayed long enough and was ready to go,” McCullough said.

Fortunately, McCullough, a flight attendant who lives in Port Townsend, was aware that the woman had Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia, so she was not taken by surprise.

This scenario is one reason McCullough made a reservation for the Saturday forum community health activist Peggy Schafran organized on dementia.

“It’s not unusual for people with Alzheimer’s to travel alone,” McCullough said. “They board early, and are seated next to the flight attendant.”

More than 200 at forum

The forum, sponsored by the Olympic Area Agency on Aging, drew more than 200 people from three counties to the Port Ludlow Bay Club on Saturday to hear Gail Bosch, a geriatric pharmacist, talk about dementia.

There, they learned about the types of dementia, the warning signs, what can be done to try to slow the progression and what to avoid that might make it worse.

“I wish I could stand up here and say there is a magic pill that we could all take in our 30s and 40s to prevent dementia,” Bosch said.

Instead, Bosch talked about what not to swallow and why, and handed out a reference, called the Beer’s List, of medications to avoid or use only in specified doses and duration for people age 65 and up.

Drugs for Alzheimer’s

She also discussed the two classes of drugs that could slow progression of Alzheimer’s, one in the mild to moderate stage and the other in the moderate to advanced stage.

The problem is that most people ignore the symptoms until they reach the moderate stage, Bosch said.

At that point, they already have lost 90 percent of a brain chemical necessary for memory and cognitive function, a situation that the first class of drug, cholinesterase inhibitors, helps prevent.

“It can prolong the initial stage and has been shown to defer entering a nursing home by nine to 12 months,” Bosch said. “These are not cures. In a way, they are Band-Aids.”

Bosch also addressed popular remedies that some use for Alzheimer’s, including dietary supplements and a new category, medical food, created by the Food and Drug Administration for a product called Axona.

Trials for the most recent crop of promising Alzheimer’s drugs did not pan out, Bosch said, although a vaccine may be available in the relatively near future.

5 million have disease

Currently, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s Disease, she said, and the number is rapidly growing.

The second most prevalent form of dementia is vascular dementia, which is caused by strokes and results in a step-wise loss of function, not the slow progression of Alzheimer’s.

That is why it is important to recognize the symptoms of Alzheimer’s — impaired memory, functioning and problem-solving that interferes with life — before the disease advances.

“Most families will fill in the pieces when a relative starts being unable to perform a normal function,” Bosch said.

“They may not remember eating breakfast five minutes ago. They may be unable to go to the mailbox to get the mail because they can’t remember the steps of the process.”

Recognizing the symptoms early also allows people to make decisions about their future and takes such measures as appointing durable power of medical attorney, before the diagnosis takes away their power to do so, Bosch said.

Karen McCullough said that when she phoned Schafran, she not only made a reservation, but also asked what she could do to help.

On being told that people needed rides from Port Townsend to the forum, McCullough volunteered to pick them up.

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Port Townsend/Jefferson County Reporter-Columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at 360-379-5688 or jjackson@olypen.com.

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