Watch CBSN Live

Alzheimer's Disease Update

You cannot look at their faces without wondering: What's been lost?

Has Josephine Gallaro forgotten that she's 88 and that she was born in Sicily?

Irma Fraad was a lawyer in the 1930s and then curator of Near Eastern art at the Brooklyn Museum. Does she remember?

Alzheimer's disease has stolen their memories, robbed them of who they were and left them in a Brooklyn nursing home. It will not stop until it has wiped away even who they are now. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner reports.

What Time is It

Roy Duhon was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in April.

"I think the worst thing would be, to be in such a state that you couldn't do things for yourself at all, anything, and you could not even do a minor thing, and yet you're still alive," says Duhon.

His wife, Susan, didn't want to believe that at 54, he could possibly have Alzheimer's disease.

"Everyone can read a watch, so when Roy would say to me, 'I don't have my watch on. What time is it?' I wouldn't think anything about that," she says. "We found other excuses for everything. Eventually, after all the testing, it was difficult to find excuses."

A much-decorated Air Force colonel, he piloted B-52s in Vietnam. He held a command position in the Gulf War and, before retiring in 1996, he was in charge of maintaining F-15s worldwide.

Now, every three months, he has to sit through what he refers to as "The Stupid Test," which is designed to chart the progression of the disease.

The Duhons are desperately hoping that a cure is found in time to help Roy, or that there are better ways to slow the disease down. And it just might happen. Alzheimer's research is at the point where their hopes are as justified as their fears.

A Century of Research

About 4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease. By the middle of the century, it will be 14 million, unless a cure is found.

If you reach the age of 85, you'll have a 50-50 chance of getting the disease.

The average cost of caring for an Alzheimer's patient is $174,000, from diagnosis to death. Such statistics have helped force the disease out of the shadows into mainstream medicine.

"This is the really exciting period. Things are moving very fast," says Dr. Richard Mayeux, a neurologist on the team leading Alzheimer's research at Columbia University. "If a person has symptoms now or is recently diagnosed, I think the future looks better than it did a year ago, two years ago, five years ago."

"They will take a drug that will either stop their disease or reverse it. I think it's possible," he says. "We can see a light at the end of the tunnel, but we're not at the end of the tunnel yet."

It was 1907, when Dr. Alois Alzheimr, a German neuropathologist, announced that the condition that today bears his name is a real disease, not just a function of aging.

It is a disease, he learned, which slowly kills off brain cells, distorting the appearance of the brain and reducing its weight by as much as half.

Dr. Alzheimer based his research on the case of Frau Auguste D., a society matron whose bizarre behavior brought her to his attention. Examining her brain after she died, Alzheimer discovered parts of brain cells twisted into weird tangles, and he found deposits of sticky protein gunk (now called amyloid plaques), the two hallmarks of the disease.

Alzheimer's disease starts in the part of the brain called the interrhinal cortex, which is part of the hippocampus, and that is the area that governs memory and the formation of new memories.

A map of the brain becomes a map of the disease.

"Once it gets into the temporal cortex, other types of memory--not only the ability to lay down new memories bt the ability to retrieve memories from the past--become impaired," explains Dr. Mayeux.

But when a person dies of Alzheimer's, in an autopsy, evidence of the disease is found everywhere in the brain.

A vaccine that dissolves amyloid plaques is actually now being tested on mice. Whether it will be salvation in a bottle for human Alzheimer's sufferers is still to be determined.

Dr. Mayeux estimates that in five years, real trials of patients will be in progress in the United States and that those trials will probably start within two to three years.

Scientists are studying how everything from estrogen to antioxidants affect Alzheimer's. They believe anti-inflammatories (drugs people take for arthritis) may have an impact. There are already two drugs on the market that temporarily relieve Alzheimer's symptoms in some people. More are on the way.

Relieving the physical symptoms is one thing; relieving the emotional ones, quite another, for patients and their families.

The Family Disease

For Charlie Pierce, the disease struck close to home. Three of his uncles, an aunt and his own father were all victims of Alzheimer's.

One of his uncles became a doctor. Later in life, he believed a football team was living in his attic.

Pierce's father became a teacher and an assistant school principal. One day, he was standing in front of Vermont's State Capitol, with no idea of how he got there.

And when Charlie Pierce drove his father 200 miles home, the family pretended nothing was wrong. Complications of Alzheimer's disease killed him four years later.

"You do wonder what comes down through the family,'s brown eyes and the sharp chin and stuff, or something more, and--maybe, perhaps--deadly," says Pierce.

In his book, Hard to Forget, Pierce refers to it as "the family disease." Alzheimer's can run n families. The book is about learning from his family's mistakes.

"I think one of the things that made it very hard in Charlie's family was the tremendous feeling of shame," says Margaret, Charlie Pierce's wife. She forced the Pierces to confront the disease.

The denial was a terrible factor, and it just crippled everybody," recalls Margaret Pierce. "It kept Charlie's father from having experiences that I think he would have enjoyed, and people with Alzheimer's are still capable of enjoyments and happiness in life."

Researchers believe the happier and healthier someone with Alzheimer's is, the slower his or her decline. So by doing aerobics every day and taking one of the new drugs now available, Roy Duhon could be slowing down his symptoms by months, even years.

"It's possible that important environmental factors contribute dramatically to one's overall risk," says Steven Ferris. He oversees research at New York University's School of Medicine that's designed to see if that theory is true.

Ferris is in charge of a long-term study, involving the Duhons, on caregiver support as a factor in Alzheimer's. In other words: Will Roy Duhon do better if Susan Duhon is doing well, emotionally and physically?

Strong and Brave

Part of the study involves counseling, and NYU's star counselor is, believe it or not, 88-year-old Emma Schulman.

"This is the crying room for me. It really is," Susan Duhon says to Schulman. "I don't have to be strong, and I don't have to be brave in here. And you can put me back together again, and then I can go back out there and be strong and be brave."

Strong and brave enough to help Roy Duhon fight back what they both know is coming.

Says Ferris, "Every time you learn something, every time you stimulate your mind, you're forming new connections in the brain. The more of these you produce ove your life, the more you have to lose...from a disease before you have symptoms."

It is exactly as if you are giving your brain a workout, as you give your body a workout at the gym.

For Roy and Susan Duhon, that means living as well as they know how for as long as they're able.

"It's not that I'm worried about, this is going to be the last time that I'll be able to do this, see this or that, you know," explains Roy Duhon. "No, I don't worry about that yet."

Says Susan Duhon, "The disease is like a coat I put on that I never take off. I'm always aware of it. I just really can't totally shed it. But when you're out at a place like (the farm), that coat is not that heavy. We can still enjoy each other. We can still enjoy life."

©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue