I remember my maternal grand mother, from the time I was about 5 years old. I was envious of my friends, and my cousins, who got a chance to go to their grand parent’s place during the summer break. This could never happen to me, because we lived right next door to my grandparents. My ajji was a plump lady, with a loud laughter. She was different than other women of her age whom I knew. She was an excellent harmonium player. She had very swift hand movements on this instrument. If you know that the harmonium is a western instrument made for producing harmonic music (such as a piano), and it is not very easy to play Indian classical music (which is melodic in nature), you definitely can appreciate how hard it is to execute the complicated sangatis in a composition in a raga of Karnataka sangeeta. She had a wide repertoire of kritis which she played on this instrument. I was really very young at that time, and I remember only a few. The composition Raghu vamsha sudhambudi  in kadana kutoohala raga, by Patnam Subramaniya Ayyar , still rings in my ears. It is unfortunate I don’t have any recordings of her music now.

After my grandfather passed away, she started forgetting things slowly. Initially it was thought it is the common old-age related problem. (ಅರವತ್ತರ ಅರಳು-ಮರಳು) The first things she forgot were those that were learnt the hard way. Like her harmonium playing.  The swift movements on the keyboard were gone in about an year. Then she started loosing her writing. When she was taken to NIMHANS to see what was happening to her, she was still quite alert, even though a shadow of her former self, and refused to see a psychiatrist! The doctors at NIMHANs told that she suffered from a type of cerebral dementia which had no cure and things may worsen from where she was. 

Later she almost lost her speech.In the following years, she  forgot more and more. By the time she passed away, she had forgotten who she was. She was in a state where there was no yesterday. Yes, she was a victim of Alzheimer’s disease.

Most of us know about celebrity victims of Alzheimer’s disease such as President Ronald Reagan, but what is not known is that this disease is the 7th leading cause of death in the USA. There are more than 5 million people suffering from this disease in the USA. I  think the numbers, as a percentage of population would be comparable at other countries too. Surely, Alzheimer’s is a silent killer.

A German physician by name Alois Alzheimer was the first one to present a case study of one of his patients with severe memory loss. When he did an autopsy of the patient’s brain, he saw enormous malformations in the brain, dead  cells, and shrinkage. This was in 1906, more than one hundred years ago. Alzheimer’s destroys brain cells, causing problems in voluntary, and involuntary functions of the brain.The effects we see in a Alzheimer’s patient are the results of  abnormal changes are taking place in the brain. Apparently, changes in the brain may start more than 10 years earlier than visible symptoms appear. So it is very important to understand the stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the initial phase, is hard to realize that something is wrong with the patient because the symptoms are often confused to be those of normal aging process. When the part of the brain that control language, reasoning, sensory processing, and thought are affected, the symptoms become more pronounced. The affected person may keep telling the same thing over and over again, and also utter some words that are not easily understood. The victim may have difficulty performing daily tasks too. When the ailment gets to the advanced stage, the victim  may have difficulty walking, and they often suffer complications from other illnesses, such as pneumonia, or bed sores. The patient will even fail to recognize family members.

As of now, there is no positive clinical test for Alzheimer’s. Even CAT scans and MRI can not detect the changes in the brain tissue in the earlier phase of the disease.The doctors still have to analyse symptoms, rule out other possibilities, and the come to the conclusion that a patient is suffering from Alzheimer’s. So a thorough check up from a physician and a neurologist are required.

It seems researchers have discovered a protein, which they have named Alzheimer’s Disease Associated Protein (ADAP), in the autopsied brains of Alzheimer’s patients. If one day, they are able to find it in the bloodstream or spinal fluid, may be that will help in easy diagnosis. There is no cure yet, but seems some drugs have shown some promise in delaying the brain damage in affected patients.

When my grandmother passed away, she was totally unaware of what was happening to her. She did not have a yesterday, nor did she have a today. It has almost been a quarter century, but as for as the treatment to the condition, there is not much difference. At least there are reasons to be hopeful.I sincerely wish scientists will find a cure for this killer disease soon.

November is the Alzheimer’s Awarness month. If you know a senior who may show any symptoms, please do not delay seeing a qualified specialist. Get an evaluation as soon as possible. A cure may not exisit today. But if the onset of the degeneration is delayed, it may be possible that a cure is found in the near future.

-neelanjana