Alzheimer’s: Let’s change “fear” to “fight”

06/20/2017 11:59 am ET

Everyone experiences fear. The fear of public speaking, failure, heights, darkness, small spaces -- and, one of my all-time favorites -- snakes. Just ask Indiana Jones. Fear comes in all sizes and shapes, and attacks despite our best efforts to ignore or avoid it. So, what makes you afraid?

We may not agree on politics, religion, or even favorite dessert (I like cannoli), but you will probably agree with me that you share the fear of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, Alzheimer’s is the most feared disease in America.

And there’s good reason. The very word, Alzheimer’s, strikes fear at the deepest core of our being. It’s the most common cause of dementia – your brain cells simply degenerate and die. But you live on, or at least, your body lives on. The specter of Alzheimer’s goes beyond the anxiety associated with most diseases. Alzheimer’s means waking up in a room you don’t recognize, surrounded by strangers. You don’t know your own wife of 50 years. You can’t remember your children. It’s terrifying. No one wants to end up in a facility, staring blankly out a window because they have, in many ways, already “died.”

None of us wants to worry about not being able to take care of ourselves, being a burden to family, or forgetting loved ones. The toll on caregivers is beyond measure. One caregiver describes Alzheimer’s as “unbelievably cruel and torturous” as she watched her vibrant, talented mother wither away. “I really don’t know how to convey how horrible this is for her and for me. She has suffered more than we can ever know, both physically and mentally…and because this battle cannot be won, you will ultimately fail.” Read more of Muffett’s story.

Most of us know a loved one or close friend who has been forced against their will to take this slow, spiraling downward journey, from which there is no return. Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related disorders lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion, even anger. That is what many of us fear most – losing control of our destiny (or watching it happen to a loved one) and being powerless to do anything to stop the descent into darkness.

Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the only disease in the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased by 89%.

June is Alzheimer's & Brain Awareness Month. As much as we may not want to talk about it, we must. We cannot make light of a forgetful moment or pretend Alzheimer’s is not an issue that will affect us personally. Unfortunately, it more than likely will.

More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. Someone develops Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds; by 2050, this will increase to every 33 seconds. Unless we’re blessed with a medical breakthrough or miracle, the number of Americans age 65 and older with the disease is projected to nearly triple by 2050 to 16 million.

I would rather not talk about this, but I have to. Fear is the worst weapon -- and a most ineffectual one at that -- when it comes to grappling with this insidious and malignant disease. Fear will not make Alzheimer’s go away or dull the devastating effects when it strikes.

That’s why I am making the decision today to replace my fear of Alzheimer’s with a commitment to fight it. That means that I am going to learn all I can, and do all I can, to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. That means taking steps now to boost my brainpower and health. Doing what I can to stay fit and improve my memory. Maybe I’ll learn a new language and start dancing. I don’t know how much it will help, but I’m willing to try.

I encourage you to do the same. Fear doesn’t cure a disease. Action does. You can join the fight against Alzheimer’s right now. Support research, treatment, and cures by getting involved with the Alzheimer’s Association. Sign up for their weekly updates to learn more, or get support if you’re a caregiver. Plus, check out Community Health Charities’ health resources and volunteer opportunities.

Let’s not focus on fear. Let’s focus on hope, believing that our children and grandchildren can look forward to a bright future, a future without Alzheimer’s.

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