Friday, March 16, 2007


Alzheimer’s disease causes safety concerns

A local TV station recently asked me for some comments after a gentleman who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease went missing at a local casino. This incident highlights the difficulties in caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. There is an inability to absorb new information, despite often having excellent recall of events that occurred many years ago. It is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder for which there is no cure. As we age, the brain gradually becomes smaller. For Alzheimer’s patients, this happens more quickly than in the normal aging process. Recently, we have begun to use medications like Aricept and Namenda that may slow the progression and hopefully improve some of the symptoms.

As many as 4.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. This number has doubled since 1980. Many people are curious about the increased frequency of Alzheimer’s disease in the population. Fortunately, we now live longer due to technologic advances in the treatment of common illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Unfortunately, we are facing more degenerative diseases as our longevity increases.

Obviously, the inability to recognize new situations presents safety issues. Driving requires good judgment and split-second decision-making. These are both difficult for Alzheimer’s patients and make them unsafe drivers. Some warning signs of dangerous driving habits are:

 frequently getting lost, especially in familiar areas
 failing to observe traffic signals
 making slow or poor decisions
 driving at inappropriate speeds
 confusing the brake and gas pedals

Wandering affects six out of 10 Alzheimer’s patients, and is often the biggest challenge facing caregivers. If not found within 24 hours, up to half will risk serious injury or death.

Darkness always creates an uncertain environment. It is crucial to keep the home well lit, especially at night. Safety gates and childproof locks are essential.
Vigilance is the best protection against wandering. The Alzheimer’s Association sponsors a Safe Return program that provides a national database, 24/7 help line, and training for caregivers and emergency responders.

Fortunately, our casino incident had a happy ending, thanks in part to the extensive video surveillance throughout the casino. I suggest caregivers and families of patients with Alzheimer’s disease contact a local support group or the Alzheimer’s Association at Education is the best tool to prevent serious injury to those suffering from this overwhelming illness.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is a neurologist on the Backus Medical Staff with a private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Alessi and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

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