Rutgers recognizes Alzheimer's awareness month
Alzheimer’s Disease affects approximately 5 million Americans, a number that is projected to rise by the year 2050 — this growing number puts a spotlight on what is already the nation’s sixth leading cause of death.
In 1983, former President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, at a time when less than 2 million Americans suffered from the neurodegenerative disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Today scientists and advocates are still working to understand and raise awareness for the disorder.
At Rutgers, organizations like the student-run Rutgers BRAIN work to bring a better understanding of brain health to the community, said Ankita Veta, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences and Rutgers BRAIN member.
“BRAIN stands for Building, Research, Advocacy and Innovation in Neuroscience, but it is not limited to neuroscience majors … The purpose is actually to expand to the larger community and make neuroscience more accessible to everybody,” Veta said.
Alzheimer’s Disease is going to become increasingly common in the lives of everybody, she said. College students, although usually affected indirectly as the disease is more common in older people, might still have to confront it in terms of elders or someone they know developing the disease.
That is why it is important for students to be aware of the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s and neurodegenerative diseases, Veta said.
One way that BRAIN advocates for increased awareness is by tabling on campus and starting conversations with passersby, said Cynthia Zheng, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences and Rutgers BRAIN member.
“(We want to) make sure that you understand the symptoms and how the disease progresses so that you can actually keep in mind what the people are going through,” Veta said.
The organization also wants to make people aware of available resources, Zheng said. Organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association, among others, have people with shared experiences and advisors for dealing with the direct or indirect effects of the disease — connecting people with resources is an important step in raising awareness and helping them cope.
One barrier to achieving more awareness is that a vast majority of people affected by Alzheimer's Disease are over the age of 65, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“When we’re younger we kind of have this idea that we are untouchable and won’t really be affected by it. Young people aren’t thinking about diseases,” Veta said. “… (But) one thing that comes up with people when we are tabling is that a lot of people are actually impacted — not directly — but through family members.”
Neha Narayanan, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences and Rutgers BRAIN member, said that this is why it is important for the organization to reach beyond those already aware of the disease, and also inform people who have never heard of the term.
Most people can empathize with the impact of disease, whether they have seen it directly or indirectly, Narayanan said. This is why one of the goals of BRAIN is to break down barriers to understanding, as a range of people can and should be aware of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
“From someone who actually goes into a lab and studies the disease, or someone who is more on the sidelines and does not have direct contact, or someone who is just visiting a patient of Alzheimer’s — it can really range (in terms of) how involved this can be,” Narayanan said. “And the beauty of it is that it’s something that everyone can relate to.”
Zeta said that BRAIN finds it important to help people understand the differences between neurodegenerative diseases, as well as the signs and symptoms, so that they are able to better approach the subject if necessary down the road.
Kasia Bieszczad, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, further explained the importance of advocacy, Alzheimer’s Disease and its signs and symptoms.
She said the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease on the families of the ill are often an afterthought. This being one reason why raising awareness is critical.
“(Alzheimer’s Disease) doesn’t just affect them, it affects everyone around them. If someone has Alzheimer’s, their family needs to know what is going on — their whole lives have to change,” Bieszczad said.
A combination of people being unaware of the signs and people with the disease being good at adjusting to early symptoms, points to the need for increased awareness.
One example of people adjusting to early symptoms of Alzheimer’s could be adopting strategies like leaving themselves post-it notes to help with memory. She said this could be an example of someone adjusting, but that the early signs of Alzheimer’s Disease will depend heavily on the severity and progression of the disease.
That is why knowing one’s family history with the disease is more effective in looking out for early signs, Bieszczad said.
Broadly speaking there are two forms of Alzheimer’s — familial and sporadic. Familial Alzheimer’s is rare and based entirely on genetics passed down to the individual. The other form is Sporadic Alzheimer’s, which is based on a combination of genetics, lifestyle and environment, she said.
With sporadic Alzheimer’s someone has more control over their fate, Bieszczad said. This is because positive lifestyle changes like remaining physically active, cognitively engaged and participating in lifelong learning can have protective effects.
Bieszczad also said Alzheimer’s is particularly difficult to study because a postmortem sample of the brain is required to officially confirm the diagnosis. The diagnosis requires a sample of the brain to see if it contains characteristic “plaques” before someone can officially be diagnosed.
On Thursday, Nov. 30 Rutgers BRAIN will host a meeting focused exclusively on neurodegenerative diseases, Veta said. The purpose will be to educate students on the many types of neurodegenerative diseases.
“I think the bottom line is that we want students to know that Rutgers BRAIN is not just for people who are already studying it,” Veta said. “The purpose is to educate those who are not already involved with neuroscience.”