Aging Well: Celebrate Alzheimer's Awareness by testing memory

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If you go

What: Free memory screenings sponsored by the National Alzheimer's Association and Aging Well program of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association

When: Drop in between noon and 2 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Yampa Valley Medical Associates, Suite 100, 940 Central Park Drive in Steamboat Springs, and Kinder Professional Group, 595 Russell St. in Craig

There is a serious epidemic facing our country that affects all of us. It's an insidious disease that is increasingly attacking aging members of the population and changing the quality of life for everyone in its wake.

The disease is Alzheimer's, and more than 5.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with it. In Colorado, there are 64,000 people living with this devastating disease. Alzheimer's is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States, and while people over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk, there are also 500,000 people younger than 65 who have Alzheimer's. By 2025, the number of people in Colorado with Alzheimer's is expected to more than double to 140,000 as the members of the Baby Boomer generation grow older.

As the numbers indicate, this is a rapidly growing threat. The medical community is diligently working to discover new and better ways to deal with the disease, and the public can help by learning more about Alzheimer's and its warning signs. During National Alzheimer's Awareness Month in November, the Alzheimer's Foundation is sponsoring free memory screenings around the country to educate the public and help people determine their risk for this incurable disease.

Memory Screening Day for Moffat and Routt counties is scheduled for Wednesday, with screenings offered in Steamboat Springs and Craig. Dr. Brian Harrington and Dr. Pam Kinder will provide memory screenings from noon until 2 p.m. Dr. Harrington will conduct screenings in his office at Yampa Valley Medical Associates in the medical office building next to Yampa Valley Medical Center, 940 Central Park Drive, Suite 100, and Dr. Kinder will screen participants at her clinic, Kinder Professional Group, 595 Russell St. in Craig.

"People can drop by between noon and 2 p.m. for the screening and we will review the results with them and recommend follow-up if needed," Kinder said. "The brief screening takes less than five minutes and the entire process should take around 10 minutes."

This initiative aims to promote early detection and intervention for various types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, memory loss and related diseases. The staff of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association's Aging Well program is facilitating the testing and VNA staff members will be on hand to provide educational materials about successful aging and community resources, including information about Alzheimer's and the warning signs.

"The screening test does not diagnose a problem. It simply lets you know that you should see your primary care provider for further evaluation," Harrington said. "Many causes of memory loss are reversible. Some nutritional deficiencies and medical problems can be fully reversed. While Alzheimer's disease is progressive, social integration and mind exercises, along with some medications, can slow the progress. Thus early detection can make a difference."

Not all memory loss is due to Alzheimer's. Other types of dementia can occur as a result of uncontrolled hypertension leading to tiny strokes that cumulatively can seriously affect brain function. Poorly controlled diabetes is another cause as it can make vascular structures in the brain more fragile and stroke-prone. Parkinson's disease, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disease and HIV can also lead to problems with memory and brain function. However, Alzheimer's disease accounts for almost 80 percent of the dementia in people older than 75.

Memory and concentration problems can be symptoms of depression in older people and are sometimes mistaken for Alzheimer's. Determining the cause of memory loss is very important in deciding how to deal with the problem.

"National Alzheimer's Awareness Month is a great time for us to help increase the understanding of dementia and its impact on the health of our community," said Donna Hackley, program evaluation and special projects coordinator for the Visiting Nurse Association's Aging Well program. "It's also an opportunity to focus on providing information and support for people living with Alzheimer's disease, as well as their families and caregivers."

Barbara Bronner, a licensed clinical geriatric social worker, and Tracey Behrman, facilitators for the Alzheimer's support groups in Steamboat Springs and Craig, respectively, will provide information on these groups on screening day.

"The most important question for people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's is, 'What comes next?'" Bronner said. "It's so different from physical illnesses because the symptoms are emotional and psychological. It's often difficult for families to grasp how to deal with Alzheimer's."

Whether family members are trying to cope with the disease long distance or hands-on as they care for a loved one, the support group is a godsend. "We share information, brainstorm, there's laughter and crying," Bronner said. "The main thing is that they don't feel so alone in dealing with the challenges of the disease."

Anyone who is concerned about memory problems, or is interested in memory care, is urged to take advantage of the free screening. If you are having trouble remembering where you put the car keys or where you parked the car, here's your chance to find out why. Professionals recommend that everyone over the age of 60 have their memory screened, even if there are no symptoms. A test now provides a base for future reference.

"Many older people worry about their memory - do they have Alzheimer's or are there other factors contributing to their memory problems?" Kinder said. "It may be that they are just tired or depressed or simply have too much on their minds. Memory screening helps determine if they need to go further to investigate and determine the reasons behind their memory problems."

Appointments are not necessary for the free Memory Screening test. Just drop by Yampa Valley Medical Associates or Kinder Professional Group between noon and 2 p.m. Wednesday to take this simple test.

For more information on the Alzheimer's Support Groups, call Barbara Bronner at 879-8942. The National Alzheimer's Foundation Web site, www.alzfdn.org, has a wealth of information on the disease.

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