By Janice Lloyd, USA TODAY
When Karen Frost got a call from her mother saying "I just want to keep you in the loop," she knew to pay attention.
Her father got lost trying to find his wife in the hospital after a routine appointment and was missing for several hours before she found him.
When Alita Aldridge got a call from her mother accusing her grandson of taking money and stealing her food, she, too, knew something was wrong. Her mother had always been loving and rarely raised her voice. Suddenly, expletives peppered her outbursts.
Though their symptoms were different, both women's parents were ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, a brain-wasting illness that afflicts 5.4 million people in the USA, destroying memory, thinking and personality. It also takes a heavy toll on caregivers. The Frosts got a quick diagnosis and started mapping out their future. But Aldridge says her mother's condition went undetected for several years, and the personality changes distanced her from her family and finally landed her in the emergency room.
"I didn't know very much about Alzheimer's disease," she says. "I thought memory was affected, but I didn't think personality was. My mother's personality had changed. We even went to a doctor who said my mother was fine. What were we supposed to do at that point?"
Starting Sunday, researchers at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2012 in Vancouver, Canada, will discuss new findings on early warning signs to evaluate cognitive function sooner and on new therapies that might slow the disease's progression. The conference is expected to draw 5,000 researchers from around the world, and it follows the U.S. government's announcement in May of an ambitious plan to increase awareness and find a way to prevent the disease by 2025. Nearly half of those 85 and older have it, and the number is expected to be 16 million by 2050.
Alzheimer's is the second-most-feared disease - behind only cancer, says Beth Kallmyer, vice president of constituent services for the Alzheimer's Association. Even though there is no cure, early diagnosis is the ticket, she says: People can treat symptoms and plan for their future while they're still able. "People can also check that bucket list," she says, and "maybe reprioritize."
Karen Frost, 44, says she and her siblings noticed their father, Bill, had been losing bits of vocabulary for several years. Part of normal aging, they thought. But when he got lost in the hospital five years ago, the family headed to experts for an answer.