Drawbacks To Living Longer

For millions of Americans, the twilight years have become a debilitating walk through darkness. As CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports in part one of a three-part "Eye on America" series, Alzheimer's disease not only alters the lives of those afflicted, but the lives of their loved ones as well.
It's a test any school-age child could pass. But for Glenn Bell, who was once an artist, copying the simplest of designs is a major challenge.

Bell has Alzheimer's disease and, at age 56, she is slowly but surely being robbed of her mind. "I know what it is but I can't think what it is," she says as she attempts to find the word to describe an image of a helicopter.

The cause of Alzheimer's disease remains unknown but the leading theory is that a protein called amyloid builds up in the brain forming plaques that disrupt communication between brain cells responsible for learning and memory.

Four million Americans are suffering from Alzheimer's, an illness many believe to be the disease of our time: a cruel by-product of great success in extending life expectancy. There are more cases of it because people are living longer. Diagnosing the disease has gotten better but there is still no cure.

"If the disease goes unchecked by the middle of the century there will be upwards of 14 to 16 million affected individuals," says Dr. Norman Relkin an Alzheimer's specialist at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. "That may take the entire gross national product to care for them."

He sees hundreds of patients like 71-year-old Ruth Becker, diagnosed 6 years ago. "It's a loss of self…a gradual loss of self.…It begins with a fading of all things that make up personality," says Relkin.

For Becker it began with an inability to pay bills, go shopping or cook.

"Ruth was a marvelous cook…she was a superb cook," says her husband Bob Becker. "She used to go out and shop and come home and cook and there were always wonderful meals happening. And then one day she came home and I'm looking for packages and she didn't have any packages with her."

Eye on America
Read the rest of the CBS News series of reports on Alzheimer's disease:

Part two: Muted Hope For Alzheimer's

Part three: Alzheimer's: The Unseen Victims

Today she can't find her way around the kitchen.

She understands questions and laughs at all of her husbands politically incorrect jokes. "If she makes a mistake I hardly ever hit her," kids Bob Becker as his wife lets out a laugh.

But she can't articulate her feelings. "As the time went by…I began to sort of start stopping," Ruth Becker tries to explain.

Her husband leads her through her days by the hand, filling them with the comfort of routine, abundant patience and love as he watches his partner of 47 years drift away. "There's something that's just not there," he says. "You can't correct something which just doesn't exist…so you deal with what's there."

It's the Beckers' reality: the challenge of living with Alzheimer's disease.