Fábregas: Test for Alzheimer's gives opportunity to prepare

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Dr. Kamthorn Sukarochana is a retired pediatric surgeon who is surrounded by Alzheimer's disease.

His wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with the disease about two years ago. A neighbor, a former colleague, and one of his brothers in Thailand have Alzheimer's, a disease that destroys the brain and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

Sukarochana, 85, of Ross is known by most people as Dr. Kam. He says he has adjusted to his wife's disease as best as he can, but laments there is no cure for it.

“There's no effective treatment at this point,” Dr. Kam told me after sharing that his wife no longer cooks or drives but is able to take daily walks.

I called Dr. Kam because researchers last week announced they have developed a blood test that can predict whether a healthy person will develop Alzheimer's disease. The test, which measures the levels of several fats in the blood, would be the first to predict Alzheimer's before it starts causing problems with memory, thinking and judgment skills.

The test is far from becoming standard, but it is a fascinating development in the quest to learn more about a fascinating disease. Would you want to know you're going to get Alzheimer's, knowing there is no cure, no treatment, and pretty much nothing you can do about it?

“Sure,” Dr. Kam said. “We have to plan intelligently how to deal with it.”

For Dr. Kam and his wife, who is 79, having access to such a tool would have meant preparing for an unpredictable illness that affects those who have it and those who care for them. Dr. Kam is one of more than 15 million caregivers of Alzheimer's patients in the country.

He says he wants to live to age 100, in part to be able to take care of his wife, a registered nurse whom he met when both worked in Children's Hospital. Had he known she was going to fall victim to Alzheimer's, he would have encouraged her to alter her diet and eat foods such as blueberries that are believed to slow cognitive degeneration, he said.

He believes he has staved off dementia by consuming caffeine every day. His choice is espresso, which he has been drinking for more than 60 years. Studies have linked higher caffeine consumption with a delayed onset of Alzheimer's.

We all know a family who has been touched by this nasty illness. My two grandmothers had it. One of them, who died two years ago, regressed to her childhood, telling us stories about dating my grandfather when they were in eighth grade. After her diagnosis, she lived with my aunt because she couldn't live in the house she loved. She constantly asked to go back home. It was heartbreaking.

The sad truth about Alzheimer's is that experimental drugs have failed to affect its pace. Five million people have the disease in the United States and the number is expected to triple by 2050, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The need for progress in this field is great. So any advance, especially a blood test that is arguably less expensive than PET scans and spinal taps, is met with optimism.

Even though the test was accurate 90 percent of the time and needs to be more widely studied, it is encouraging. Especially if it means that people such as Mrs. Sukarochana could avoid the pitfalls of this horrible disease.

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