Dealing With and Understanding Debilitating Illnesses

Jackie Bedard
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Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are two types of debilitating illnesses that slowly rob a person of his or her physical and mental abilities. Often after years of suffering with the disease, the person reaches the point where he or she no longer can provide his or her own care or make decisions. Not only do these prolonged illnesses drain the individual’s physical and mental abilities, but the individual’s loved ones must bear a burden.  No matter how willingly borne, that burden weighs them down year-by-year, then by the month, and finally by the day and minute. A further insult is added by the astounding cost of paying for care for a person in the later stages of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. And with the prospect of declining capabilities and increasing costs come important legal decisions and planning strategies to prepare for future medical and financial needs. (Link to What You Need to do When Planning for Financial Decisions Post 3, Series 1)

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting approximately 5.4 million Americans, and it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. This disease of the brain progressively impairs behavior and personality, while causing problems with memory, thinking, and judgment. Symptoms usually develop and worsen over time, eventually interfering with daily tasks. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s but current treatments can temporarily slow the progression of the symptoms. Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of the aging process, although most people who have Alzheimer’s are over age 65. However, up to 5% of those who have Alzheimer’s have “early-onset Alzheimer’s,” often in their 40s or 50s.

Parkinson’s disease is a motor system disorder, resulting from the loss of brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine. Dopamine allows the brain to transmit signals to produce smooth movement of muscles. Loss of dopamine causes neurons to fire without normal control, resulting in the person being less able to direct or control his or her movement. These motor control symptoms of Parkinson’s are familiar to most people as tremors (or trembling) in hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face; rigidity or stiffness of the arms, legs, and trunk; slowness of movement; and impaired balance and coordination called postural instability. Parkinson’s also has “non-motor” symptoms, including cognitive impairment ranging from mild memory loss to dementia, depression, and anxiety. Parkinson’s symptoms affect patients differently. Not all patients experience all of the symptoms, and the rate at which the symptoms worsen varies, too. An estimated 1 million people in the United States, and between 4 and 6 million worldwide have Parkinson’s. There is no cure for Parkinson’s currently, and the types of treatment depend upon the symptoms evidenced by the particular patient.

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