in at about 3 pounds, the brain is the body’s supercomputer. It
controls everything we do consciously, like walking or eating, and
unconsciously, such as breathing. It tells our eyes when to blink, our
hearts when to beat. It coordinates our senses and moods.
For all its
myriad capabilities, though, one function of the brain stands out.
"Thinking is the most sophisticated thing your brain does,"
notes Dr. Piero Antuono, professor of neurology, pharmacology and
toxicology and director of the Demetia Research Center at the Medical
College of Wisconsin. "It’s the first thing to go when you have
an extra glass of wine, the minute you have a headache or the flu, or
take a sleeping pill or anti-allergy medicine."
unlock the mysteries of the brain is sophisticated stuff, too. Read
here about the national impact Milwaukee area health providers are
making on complex problems like dementia and behavioral health.
can be terrifying: 5 million people in the United States with
Alzheimer’s disease, and more than 16 million Americans projected to
have it by 2050.
But what if
lifestyle changes could halt that trend? After all, we’ve seen heart
disease deaths decline during the past 45 years, thanks to prevention
efforts and better care. Research is showing that the brain reserves
we need to stave off dementia are built during a lifetime of physical
activity, cognitive stimulation and healthy eating — all factors we
can control. "Postponing the onset through healthy lifestyles is
pretty cheap intervention," says Dr. Piero Antuono.
to work on preventing Alzheimer’s because there currently is no
cure. Even testing for the disease remains in flux. "More than
half of the information we find published in scientific papers is
debunked within a year," says Antuono. "We always say, ‘Time
So, the work
goes on. Antuono, for example, is studying how to use MRIs to identify
those at future risk for dementia. Down the road, everyone might get a
baseline MRI, just like they now get a screening colonoscopy at age
50. By then, Antuono hopes, effective drugs will have been developed.
"If you have a family history, certain genes and an abnormal MRI,
you would begin treatment before you get memory impairment symptoms
— when you’re 50 or 55 instead of when you do get memory problems
at 70," explains Antuono.
But why do
people get Alzheimer’s? No single cause has been identified, says
Antuono. Scientists suspect a damaging protein called beta-amyloid is
the culprit. It can begin accumulating in the brain about 20 years
before a person shows symptoms of memory loss. In some cases, it can
be produced in massive amounts due to an abnormal gene, leading to
early onset Alzheimer’s (which sidelined legendary basketball coach
Pat Summitt at age 59.)
people accumulate beta-amyloid in the spinal fluid before it even
reaches the brain and eventually forms the clumps that break the
connections between brain cells.
clinical trial at MCW is testing a man-made amyloid antibody — in
effect, an Alzheimer’s vaccine — in patients with mild cognitive
impairment. "These are people who are still working, active and
have no trouble doing all the hundreds of things we do every
day," says Antuono. "They have a measurable decline, and we
know it’s the very, very tip of the iceberg of something that’s
going to get worse over the next two, three or five years. The idea is
to stop it before it progresses to Alzheimer’s."
focuses on protein tau, which is found in brain cells themselves. It
can derail the cells’ ability to communicate with each other,
contributing to the death of the cells. While tau is commonly
associated with Alzheimer’s disease, concussions and traumatic brain
injury as seen in professional athletes are believed to be involved in
the creation of tau, according to Antuono.
Last fall the
National Institutes of Health announced $45 million in new Alzheimer’s
funding to test early interventions and explore new therapies. But
public and private research dollars lag behind many other health
Alzeheimer’s "a women’s disease," given that two-thirds
of people with the disease and two-thirds of the Alzheimer’s
caregivers are female.
cancer hits women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and it rallies our
emotions to do something about it, because it’s unjust for somebody
to have to die at such a young age," he says. "When it hits
people in their 70s and 80s, people are going to die of something
anyway, and there’s not that sense of urgency."
memory loss disrupts daily life, it may be a symptom of
Alzheimer’s. Use these examples provided by the Alzheimer’s
Association to help you decide if you need to check in with a
probably not dementia if you …
Make a bad
decision once in a while
which day it is and remember later
forget which word to use
things from time to time
could be a problem if you …
use poor judgment and make bad decisions
manage a budget
of the date or the season
difficulty having a conversation
things and can’t retrace steps to find them
Alzheimer’s patients and their families are benefiting from a
growing array of social opportunities, helping them stay connected to
the community and build friendships.
we can learn and share with somebody else, the more we can help,"
says Harlan Mueller of Brookfield, whose wife, Gail, was diagnosed in
The couple, both
69 years old now, initially attended one of the many support groups
sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association Southeast Wisconsin
helped launch a monthly Memory Café, where people gather once a month
to converse in a casual setting.
us more time to be together, and be in an environment in which there
is no stigma, no stress, no feeling stupid," explains Harlan.
also attend SPARK! cultural events at local and regional museums,
where docents and volunteers are specially trained to guide the
experience for people with dementia and their caregivers. Another
group activity they enjoy together includes a physical fitness
it’s helpful to maintain socialization," says Harlan,
"otherwise people get depressed and don’t want to go out or do
anything. We need to show society what this disease is about, and we
need to change the way people thing about it. That would definitely
of the month, Panera Bread, Ruby Isle, 2205
N. Calhoun Road
p.m., third Thursday of the month, Flipside Cafe & Grill, 2074
10-11:30 a.m., third Wednesday of the month, Hessed’s Connection
Cafe & Laundry, 1308 W. Main St.
A life of public
service, and decades of political battles won and lost — nothing
could have prepared Martin Schreiber for the challenges of caring for
a spouse with Alzheimer’s.
for the loved one you once knew, you become depressed and you develop
anxiety about what the future might hold — and you worry," says
there is a repeat question or a repeat experience, you know where
Alzheimer’s is headed. It’s headed toward further incapacity, and
it’s headed down toward the end."
Wisconsin governor has largely kept his wife’s illness out of the
public realm. He says he thought "long and hard" before
agreeing to be interviewed for this story.
in coming forward stems from wanting people to understand the toll
exacted by dementia on not only patients, but their families, too. He
also wants to spark a conversation with health-care providers,
insurance companies and employers about the support caregivers
"This is a
very personal matter," he explains. "But I believe it’s
worth it, because we’ve just got to jar the system so there’s more
attention given to help with the coping and caring."
Schreiber, 74, was diagnosed about seven years ago, following some
uncharacteristic, erratic behavior. Widely known as a gracious
hostess, she had tried to make for friends a special German meal that
she’d been serving for years, but left out some key ingredients.
And, she would
get lost for hours while driving once-familiar routes. One day she
ended up stranded, surrounded by orange barrels in a construction zone
and trying to tell police officers where she had been trying to go.
wasn’t like her," says Schreiber, 75, who met his future wife
when they were freshmen at Milwaukee Lutheran High School.
Schreiber was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she joined the ranks of
some 50,000 people living with the disease in the 11-county area
served by the Alzheimer’s Association Southeast Wisconsin Chapter.
devastating news for a proud woman who had raised four children during
her husband’s busy political career and then gone back into the work
force, in her late 40s, after his 1988 mayoral campaign had sapped the
diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, Martin Schreiber took on more of the
cooking and cleaning chores at the couple’s Bay View home. He did
the grocery shopping. He drove his wife everywhere she needed to go.
He began spending less time running his government relations firm, and
almost no time caring for his own health.
even notice the transition of going from loving spouse to full-time
caregiver," he says.
About four years
ago, he discontinued his daily workouts at the Milwaukee Athletic
Club, and put on 20 pounds. Soon he was short of breath; doctors
couldn’t agree on why. He even was hospitalized. "After a
couple hundred thousand dollars of medical treatment, it began to dawn
on me that my problems were not necessarily medical-related,"
Schreiber recalls. "Some key people with knowledge of Alzheimer’s
said if I didn’t begin to take care of myself, I’d be dead before
Elaine, and then she’d be in the nursing home."
then that he needed time away from his care-giving duties. Finding the
right help, however, was a struggle. He tried to bring in help at
home, but his wife wouldn’t stand for it. Next, he enrolled her at
St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, hoping she would rediscover
her love of swimming there, but it wasn’t the right fit. Finally, he
found a day program that fit — at the Jewish Home and Care Center
— allowing her to receive services in a structured environment and
giving him the respite he needed to return to healthy habits.
attends what we call ‘classes.’ She takes her college notebook
with her every day," says Schreiber. "I make sure I get my
exercise in and get some time alone. I look forward to picking her up
The former first
couple has become involved with the Alzheimer’s Association well
beyond support groups. Three years ago, Elaine appeared at the
Southeast Wisconsin chapter’s fundraiser walk to thank the
Her husband is
working to urge local companies to join the association’s Alzheimer’s
Workplace Alliance, which promotes wellness activities and corporate
policies that support a work-life balance. So far, about 20 companies
in the area have signed on.
doctors who diagnose dementia need to focus on caregivers as well.
"I believe it would save millions and millions of dollars in
health-care costs for the caregiver, and also improve the quality of
life for both the patient and the caregiver," he explains.
"It would improve the productivity of the caregiver at their
place of employment."
The couple —
married 53 years in June — still get together with close friends,
eat out and attend concerts and plays. They get frequent visits from
their children, even the two who live several states away, and their
13 grandchildren. But Elaine’s slide into confusion continues. While
she still knows family members when she sees them, she often asks her
husband how many children they have and cannot remember which one is
the parent of a particular grandchild. "She is," says
Schreiber, "a very wonderful, loving, caring, confused
Plan your meals
around Alaskan sockeye salmon, sardines, tilapia, herring, walnuts,
pumpkin seeds, ground flaxseed and leafy greens — all sources of
omega-3 fatty acids. Spice things up with turmeric or ginger, and load
up on colorful fruit and vegetables for anti-inflammatory benefits.
Cook with sage to aid word recall, or mix rosemary oil into salad
dressing to improve brain performance. But here’s the reality check:
"A sprinkle of cinnamon on your doughnut will not turn it
magically into a health food," says Dr. Anna Lamnari, internal
medicine physician with Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group.
exercise for at least 20 minutes and you might experience the
"runner’s high." Even longer workouts can trigger the
release of pain-killing chemicals, such as endorphins, that allow you
to push past your normal boundaries. "It creates a positive
reinforcement loop," says Ironman triathlete Dr. Scott M.
Dresden, medical director of Aurora Occupational Health and Wellness.
Some studies even show regular exercise to be as effective as
Focus on being
more "present" and be a Steady Eddie, rather than amplifying the
business of your day-to-to activities. It’s called mindfulness,
and while it has its origins in yoga and other meditative experiences,
it’s being introduced in health-care settings and schools, too.
Experts say it can reduce blood pressure, improve pain management and
decrease anxiety, among other benefits. "It is fundamentally
about relating to our situation as it is, and with kindness, rather
than with the kind of aggression associated with yet another attempt
at trying to ‘fix’ ourselves or others," says Donald Roth,
psychologist with Wheaton Franciscan. Start with five to 10 minutes a
day of sitting meditation, mindful stretching, breathing exercises or
yoga — a mindfulness class can provide valuable feedback.