LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas has been developing a statewide response to the growing health crisis created by Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
During the 2023 session, the legislature will consider a series of proposals brought by the Alzheimer's and Dementia Advisory Council, which was created by Act 319 of 2021.
Measures include enhancement of services for caregivers. Many wear themselves out physically caring for loved ones, and many receive no compensation for the long hours they devote to care.
Although most people have heard of Alzheimer's disease, public awareness campaigns are necessary to improve early detection, and educate people about the early warning signs. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's, there are treatments that can slow its progression and soften the impact of its symptoms.
State governments began responding to Alzheimer's in the 1980s, and their responses amplified as public health officials became more aware of the wide-ranging effects of the disease.
Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80% of all dementia cases. Dementia is a general term to describe loss of memory and mental abilities. There is no single test for Alzheimer's. Physicians rely on blood tests, scans, interviews with family members and tests of memory and cognitive skills.
How a person gets Alzheimer's is not known exactly. The major risk factor is old age. It can run in the family. Obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease may be risk factors. That means you may be able to ward off the disease by exercising, keeping mentally active and eating healthily.
The most common early symptom is the inability to remember newly learned information. Other warning signs include difficulty completing familiar tasks, losing things, being disoriented, withdrawal from social activities, no longer being able to plan ahead or work with numbers, changes in judgment and decision making that are out of character and finally, mood swings and personality changes.
In Arkansas, an estimated 93,000 people provide unpaid care to loved ones with Alzheimer's. The majority are women and two-thirds are older than 50, so the physical challenges of caregiving are daunting. The majority of caregivers have been providing care for more than four years.
Caregivers have to leave work early or take time off. They lose benefits and have to turn down promotions. Due to the demands of caregiving, 9% have had to quit work entirely and 18% have had to leave a full-time job and take a part-time job.
In 2020, about 58,000 Arkansans had Alzheimer's and by 2025 that will increase to 67,000 people, in part because of the general aging of the population.
It is expensive to care for Alzheimer's patients, more so than caring for people with cancer and heart disease.
Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia tend to have more incidents entailing higher costs for coronary artery disease, diabetes, strokes, chronic kidney disease and cancer.
Overall, people without dementia don't need care as often for those same medical conditions as do people who also suffer from dementia.
For people 65 and older with dementia, the rate of hospitalization is twice what it is for people who don't have dementia. It is 538 hospital visits for every 1,000 people compared to 266 hospital visits per 1,000 people.
Editor's note: Arkansas Sen. Cecile Bledsoe represents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Senate Health Committee.