06/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Living with Alzheimer's

There are few conditions more frightening to my patients -- and to me -- than dementia. It's easily the most common fear voiced in my office. One woman recently said, "I couldn't think of her name and I've known her for years; I think I may have Alzheimer's." Another patient, a physician, half-jokingly asked, "How do I know if I'm losing it or have just misplaced it?" Behind his nervous attempt at humor was a deadly serious concern.

The most common form of dementia in the elderly is Alzheimer's disease. According to the Alzheimer's Association, it affects as many as 5.3 million Americans. Especially cruel is the twilight phase when patients can still understand what they are losing, when they can see the receding silhouette of their memories but cannot reclaim what they've lost. This was brought home to me very poignantly last year when I interviewed 65 year old Carol and her husband Mike about Carol's Alzheimer's. At one point, Carol could not remember how long she'd been married even though I had just reminded her two minutes earlier. At another point, Mike -- a retired cop -- broke down talking about his wife's illness. All the words in the world cannot adequately describe the anguish conveyed by the looks on their faces, the tone of their voices.

Often forgotten in the tragedy of dementia are the caretakers, frequently family members whose lives are torpedoed by the devastating illness. In this week's CBS Doc Dot Com, I speak with Gloria Signorini, an 80 year old woman with dementia and with her daughter, Joanne, who has put her life on hold to take care of her mother. Mrs. Signorini's physician, Dr. Gayatri Devi, an expert in dementia at NYU Langone Medical Center, provides perspective about Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

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