This really hit home for me ...
I was sitting with Jan the other day. It was sunny and bright outside, a glistening "Rocky Mountain High" kind of Colorado day. And she asked me the sweetest thing: "Will you marry me?"
I loved that she wanted that. Of course, she had forgotten that we have been married for more than a quarter-century.
Jan never forgets Barry, however. She talks about him incessantly, telling people he is the love of her life. Sometimes, he tells her to do things, like do a good job when she sees the dentist.
But she can no longer connect that Barry who wanders in and out of her tattered memory to the real me, the person sitting in front of her, who never said a word to her about the dentist. The most she can do is sense that I am someone who was once important to her, someone she cared about who now has no name in her mind. But someone she likes enough to suggest marriage.
Jan was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in 2005. She was 55, and today she is just as vibrant as then, just as ready to laugh. But she cannot make a complete sentence or tell you what city she lives in.
There are many Jans among us.
Today, on World Alzheimer's Day, there are too many Jans among us. Worldwide, 33 million people have the disease. Of those, 5.3 million are Americans.
The numbers are a snapshot of where we are now. But what is coming is a tsunami of Alzheimer's. By mid-century, an estimated 16 million Americans will have the disease.
When Jan was diagnosed, I faced this reality of Alzheimer's: There is no known cause and no cure. The available medicines can slow but not stop the disease.
Even our great Colorado outdoor exercise lifestyle is no guarantee of avoiding Alzheimer's.
The National Institutes of Health says that, so far, the studies show good living habits "may play a role in preventing or slowing" Alzheimer's. A less-than-ringing endorsement because current research is less than definitive. We just don't know.
And that leads to some tough questions about taxes. With money for research — tax dollars along with private donations spent now — there is a fighting chance that the statistics on Alzheimer's in the future can be changed. If taxes are cut and research money dries up, we could save today and pay much more down the road for the growing numbers who will need care-giving and assisted-living facilities as the disease takes more of us.
There is no guarantee, but there is experience connecting research money spent to diseases beaten back. Tracking the causes of death between 2000 and 2006, billions in research has changed death rates for heart disease (down 11.5 percent) breast cancer (down 2.6 percent) and stroke (down 18.2 percent). Alzheimer's research gets a fraction of what is spent on many other diseases — about $500 million a year — and the death rate over that same period shows a staggeringincreaseof 46.1 percent.
And let's make it personal, about you and me, because one of us will get Alzheimer's if we just live long enough. Almost half of Americans who make it to age 85 will develop the disease. And the other half may end up being caregivers.
This is a good day to wonder if we can change that. I would like to think so, if money is spent for research, though no one can know for sure.
But we do know what will happen if we do not try: There will be more Jans lost to this disease.
I sit with Jan, hear her laughter, see her deepening confusion, and see fair warning of what is coming at the rest of us.
And, at the moment, there is no way to fight back.
CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen lives in Denver. Visit the Colorado Alzheimer's website at alz.org/co.
(reprinted from the Denver Post September 21, 2010)