Roses are red
Violets are blue
Risk is low for coronavirus
But high for the flu
At the time of this tweet, from our Surgeon General on February 1 2020 we already had over 12,000 confirmed Coronavirus cases in the U.S and 360 deaths; and probably many more unknown cases since we had no significant testing capability (and still don't)
So many unhelpful misleading comments from the top down
The coronavirus stimulus package Congress rushed out last week to help the nation’s hospitals and health care networks hands the industry billions of dollars in windfall subsidies and other spending that has little to do with defeating the COVID-19 pandemic.
The $2 trillion legislation, which President Donald Trump signed Friday, includes more than $100 billion in emergency funds to compensate hospitals and other health care providers for lost revenue and other costs associated with COVID-19. The measure also calls for spending up to $16 billion to replenish the nation’s depleted stockpile of medical gear, such as ventilators, medicines and personal protective equipment, or PPE.
But health care businesses will get billions of dollars in additional funding not directly related to the pandemic, in some cases because Congress agreed to reverse scheduled cuts in the rates paid by Medicaid and Medicare, which the federal government had tried for years to impose.
“Anything that could tangentially be related to the crisis lobbyists tried to get stuffed in this bill ― particularly health-care-related items,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. While the stimulus package is “not as big” a “Christmas tree” as some other bills, Ellis said, “I’m sure we’ll find a few baubles and gifts along the way.”
Hospitals have won widespread praise as their doctors and other medical staffs labor under perilous conditions, including shortages of protective gear. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the industry emerged as a big winner in the stimulus negotiations. Not only can hospitals draw on the $100 billion fund to stem their losses and cover other costs, but they will also see a boost in one stream of revenue as Congress overturned some planned rate cuts.
More than 3,000 hospitals that treat outsize numbers of Medicaid or uninsured patients, for instance, will share in an $8 billion windfall through the stimulus provision that reverses cuts in their Medicaid payments for 2020 and 2021.
Separately, hospitals will rake in at least $3 billion more because of a temporary suspension of a 2% cut in Medicare fees, according to the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents more than 1,000 for-profit hospitals and health systems. The infusion of cash also benefits doctors, nursing homes, home health companies and others.
“That’s welcome news during this time of crisis,” said Joanne Cunningham, executive director of the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare.
Also tucked into the stimulus: a rollback of planned rate cuts to clinical laboratories and some medical equipment suppliers.
At this stage, it is unclear how much these measures will add to the COVID-19 tab ― or if far more stimulus would be required for the health care industry to rebound.
Take the 2% rate cut known as “the sequester.” The Office of Management and Budget expected it would save Medicare $16.2 billion in fiscal 2021. But the stimulus bill rescinds that rate cut from May 1 through the end of this year. As part of the legislation, Congress said it would, in effect, recoup the payments later by adding another year to the sequester. Whether lawmakers will follow through on that is anyone’s guess.
Anders Gilberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), expects the sequester relief to translate to a “huge” financial boost for more than 15,000 medical practices his group represents.
“This would never have been done under any other circumstances,” Gilberg said. “The situation was recognized as dire.”
Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, said the stimulus offers “needed financial relief to hard-hit workers, health systems and physician practices. At this critical moment, physician practices need significant financial support to sustain themselves and continue to meet the health care needs of all Americans during this time.”
Similarly, American Hospital Association CEO Rick Pollack called the legislation “an important first step forward. But, he added, “more will need to be done to deal with the unprecedented challenge of this virus.”
In a nod to clinical laboratories, which have helped bail out the federal government’s early failure to supply enough COVID-19 tests, the stimulus delayed planned rate cuts in 2021 likely to amount to tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Medicare officials have been at odds with the lab industry for years over rates for lab tests.
While other health care interests praised the bill, the laboratory trade association said it comes up short.
Just before the Senate passed the stimulus bill Wednesday, American Clinical Laboratory Association President Julie Khani slammed Congress for not designating funding to support labs. She said labs were in “an untenable situation, absorbing growing, uncompensated costs for testing specimens with no assurance that they will be appropriately or fairly reimbursed for all the tests they are performing.”
She added a not-so-veiled threat, saying: “If Congress fails to designate essential emergency funding for clinical laboratories to support our efforts, labs will be soon be forced to make difficult decisions about whether they can keep building the [testing] capacity our nation needs.”
The lab association, in a statement to Kaiser Health News, said labs have absorbed “staggering” Medicare reimbursement cuts of as much as 30% for many common tests in recent years.
In public securities filings this year, lab giants Quest Diagnostics Inc. and Laboratory Corp of America Holdings, known as LabCorp, reported they expected rate cuts in 2020 totaling more than $150 million. LabCorp said it supported the views of the lab association. Quest did not respond to a request for comment.
While labs processing COVID-19 tests missed out on direct funding, they could be eligible for some of the $100 billion allocated for hospitals and other providers to cover their losses, congressional aides said.
And the stimulus measure states that even in the event a lab is out-of-network, health plans are expected to pay the price it sets — as long as the lab publishes that price online — or negotiate with the lab.
Given that laws in some states ban surprise billing in particular, this provision seems to favor the labs, said Katie Keith, a Georgetown University law professor and health policy expert. “No one just lets the provider set the price,” she said.
The lab association disputes that, saying that many health plans are expected to pay them less than the $51.50 government recommended for a COVID-19 test.
Just how the $100 billion in health care funding will be distributed and how much oversight will occur is another unknown.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has the authority to decide how long the emergency provisions remain in effect. Tracking all that money will be a challenge as well.
Ellis, the taxpayer advocate, noted that no government agency “is ready to handle the rush of extra funding.” He said that the stimulus grants extra resources to inspector general offices to monitor spending.
“There will be waste, there will be abuse,” he said. “It’s about exposing and rooting it out.”
The HHS Office of Inspector General expects to receive $4 million to support this oversight, according to spokesman Donald White.
Some groups aren’t waiting to compete over the $100 billion. The MGMA sent a letter March 27 to Azar and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services chief Seema Verma asking for more direct help. Gilberg noted that some medical practices, such as doctors who perform colonoscopies, have not been able to continue their work.
“Doctors and physician practices are having a lot of trouble right now,” Gilberg said. “They are literally shut down, and they are having financial troubles. Their operations have come to a full halt.”
KHN correspondents Rachana Pradhan and Emmarie Huetteman contributed to this report.
A high-ranking federal official in late February warned that the United States needed to plan for not having enough personal protective equipment for medical workers as they began to battle the novel coronavirus, according to internal emails obtained by Kaiser Health News.
The messages provide a sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s statements at the time that the threat the coronavirus posed to the American public remained “very low.” In fact, concerns were already mounting, the emails show, that medical workers and first responders would not have enough masks, gloves, face shields and other supplies, known as PPE, to protect themselves against infection when treating COVID-19 patients.
The emails, part of a lengthy chain titled “Red Dawn Breaking Bad,” includes senior officials across the Department of Veterans Affairs, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as outside academics and some state health officials. KHN obtained the correspondence through a public records request in King County, Washington, where officials struggled as the virus set upon a nursing home in the Seattle area, eventually killing 37 people. It was the scene of the first major outbreak in the nation.
“We should plan assuming we won’t have enough PPE — so need to change the battlefield and how we envision or even define the front lines,” Dr. Carter Mecher, a physician and senior medical adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote on Feb. 25. It would be weeks before front-line health workers would take to social media with the hashtag #GetMePPE and before health systems would appeal to the public to donate protective gear.
In the email, Mecher said confirmed-positive patients should be categorized under two groups with different care models for each: those with mild symptoms should be encouraged to stay home under self-isolation, while more serious patients should go to hospital emergency rooms.
“The demand is rising and there is no guarantee that we can continue with the supply since the supply-chain has been disrupted,” Eva Lee, director of the Center for Operations Research in Medicine and HealthCare at Georgia Tech and a former health scientist at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, wrote that same day citing shortages of personal protective equipment and medical supplies. “I do not know if we have enough resources to protect all frontline providers.”
Reached on Saturday, Lee said she isn’t sure who saw the message trail but “what I want is that we take action because at the end of the day we need to save patients and health care workers.”
Mecher, also reached Saturday, said the emails were an “an informal group of us who have known each other for years exchanging information.” He said concerns aired at the time on medical protective gear were top of mind for most people in health care. More than 35 people were on the email chain, many of them high-ranking government officials.
The same day Mecher and others raised the concern in the messages, Trump made remarks to a business roundtable group in New Delhi, India.
“We think we’re in very good shape in the United States,” he said, noting that the U.S. closed the borders to some areas. “Let’s just say we’re fortunate so far. And we think it’s going to remain that way.”
The White House declined to comment. In a statement, VA press secretary Christina Mandreucci said, “All VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies to handle additional coronavirus cases, and the department is continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain.”
Doctors and other front-line medical workers in the weeks since have escalated concerns about shortages of medical gear, voicing alarm about the need to protect themselves, their families and patients against COVID-19, which as of Saturday evening had sickened more than 121,000 in the United States and killed at least 2,000.
As Mecher and others sent emails about growing PPE concerns, HHS Secretary Alex Azar testified to lawmakers that the U.S. had 30 million N95 respirator masks stockpiled but needed 300 million to combat the outbreak. Some senior U.S. government officials were also warning the public to not buy masks for themselves to conserve the supply for health care providers.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted on Feb. 29: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
Still, on Feb. 27, the FDA in a statement said that officials were not aware of widespread shortages of equipment.
“We are aware of reports from CDC and other U.S. partners of increased ordering of a range of human medical products through distributors as some healthcare facilities in the U.S. are preparing for potential needs if the outbreak becomes severe,” the agency said.
Simultaneously, Trump downplayed the risk of the novel coronavirus to the American public even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was warning it was only a matter of time before it would spread across the country. On Feb. 29, the CDC also updated its strategies for health workers to optimize supplies of N95 masks.
An HHS spokesperson said Saturday the department has been in “an all-out effort to mobilize America’s capacity” for personal protective equipment and other supplies, including allowing the use of industrial N95 respirators in health care settings and awarding contracts to several private manufacturers to buy roughly 600 million masks over the next 18 months.
“Health care supply chains are private-sector-driven,” the spokesperson said. “The federal role is to support that work, coordinate information across the industry and with state or local agencies if needed during emergencies, and drive manufacturing demand as best we can.”
The emails from King County officials and others in Washington state also show growing concern about the exposure of health care workers to the virus, as well as a view into local officials’ attempts to get help from the CDC.
In one instance, local medical leaders were alarmed that paramedics and other emergency personnel were possibly exposed after encountering confirmed-positive patients at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the Seattle-area nursing home where roughly three dozen people have died because of the virus.
“We are having a very serious challenge related to hospital exposures and impact on the health care system,” Dr. Jeff Duchin, the public health officer for Seattle and King County, wrote in a different email to CDC officials March 1. Duchin pleaded for a field team to test exposed health care workers and additional support.
Duchin’s email came hours after a physician at UW Medicine wrote about being “very concerned” about exposed workers at multiple hospitals and their attempts to isolate infected workers.
“I suspect that we will not be able to follow current CDC [recommendations] for exposed HCWs [health care workers] either,” wrote Dr. John Lynch, medical director of employee health for Harborview Medical Center and associate professor of Medicine and Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington. “As you migh [sic] imagine, I am very concerned about the hospitals at this point.”
Those concerns have been underscored with an unusual weekend statement from Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, which represents doctors, calling on Saturday for more coordination of needed medical supplies.
“At this critical moment, a unified effort is urgently needed to identify gaps in the supply of and lack of access to PPE necessary to fight COVID-19,” the statement says. “Physicians stand ready to provide urgent medical care on the front lines in a pandemic crisis. But their need for protective gear is equally urgent and necessary.”
"Close down group meals for seniors. Cancel social gatherings."
The directive, from the Illinois Department on Aging, sent shock waves through senior service organizations late last week.
Overnight, Area Agencies on Aging had to figure out how to help people in their homes instead of at sites where they mingle and get various types of assistance.
This is the new reality as the COVID-19 virus barrels into communities across America. Older adults — the demographic group most at risk of dying if they become ill ― are being warned against going out and risking contagion. And programs that serve this population are struggling to ensure that seniors who live in the community, especially those who are sick and frail, aren’t neglected.
This vulnerable population far outstrips a group that has received more attention: older adults in nursing homes. In the U.S., only 1.4 million seniors reside in these institutions; by contrast, about 47 million older adults are aging in place. An additional 812,000 seniors make their homes at assisted living facilities.
While some of these seniors are relatively healthy, a significant portion of them are not. Outside of nursing homes, 15% of America’s 65-and-older population (more than 7 million seniors) is frail, a condition that greatly reduces their ability to cope with even minor medical setbacks. Sixty percent have at least two chronic conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes, that raise the chance that the coronavirus could kill them.
But the virus is far from the only threat older adults face. The specter of hunger and malnutrition looms, as sites serving group meals shut down and seniors are unable or afraid to go out and shop for groceries. An estimated 5.5 million older adults were considered “food insecure” — without consistent access to sufficient healthy food ― even before this crisis.
As the health care system becomes preoccupied with the new coronavirus, non-urgent doctors’ visits are being canceled. Older adults who otherwise might have had chronic illness checkups may now deteriorate at home, unnoticed. If they don’t go out, their mobility could become compromised — a risk for decline.
Furthermore, if older adults stop seeing people regularly, isolation and loneliness could set in, generating stress and undermining their ability to cope. And if paid companions and home health aides become ill, quarantined or unable to work because they need to care for children whose schools have closed, older adults could be left without needed care.
Yet government agencies have not issued detailed guidance about how to protect these at-risk seniors amid the threat of the COVID-19 virus.
“I’m very disappointed and surprised at the lack of focus by the CDC in specifically addressing the needs of these high-risk patients,” said Dr. Carla Perissinotto, associate chief for geriatrics clinical programs at the University of California-San Francisco, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.
In this vacuum, programs that serve vulnerable seniors are scrambling to adjust and minimize potential damage.
Meals on Wheels America CEO Ellie Hollander said “we have grave concerns” as senior centers and group dining sites serving hot meals to millions of at-risk older adults close. “The demand for home-delivered meals is going to increase exponentially,” she predicted.
That presents a host of challenges. How will transportation be arranged, and who will deliver the meals? About two-thirds of the volunteers that Meals on Wheels depends on are age 60 or older ― the age group now being told to limit contact with other people as much as possible.
In suburban Cook County just outside Chicago, AgeOptions, an Area Agency on Aging that serves 172,000 older adults, on Thursday shuttered 36 dining sites, 21 memory cafes for people with dementia and their caregivers, and programs at 30 libraries after the Illinois Department on Aging recommended that all such gatherings be suspended.
Older adults who depend on a hot breakfast, lunch or dinner “were met at their cars with packaged meals” and sent home instead of having a chance to sit with friends and socialize, said Diane Slezak, AgeOptions president. The agency is scrambling to figure out how to provide meals for pickup or bring them to people’s homes.
With Mather, another Illinois organization focused on seniors, AgeOptions plans to expand “Telephone Topics” — a call-in program featuring group discussions, lectures, meditation classes and live performances — for seniors now confined at home and at risk of social isolation.
In New York City, Mount Sinai at Home every day serves about 1,200 older adults who are homebound with serious illnesses and disabilities — an extraordinarily vulnerable group. A major concern is what will happen to clients if home care workers become sick with the coronavirus, are quarantined or are unable to show up for work because they have to care for family members, said Dr. Linda DeCherrie, Mount Sinai at Home’s clinical director and a professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Health System.
With that in mind, DeCherrie and her colleagues are checking with every patient on the program’s roster, evaluating how much help the person is getting and asking whether they know someone ― a son or daughter, a friend, a neighbor — who could step in if aides become unavailable. “We want to have those names and contact information ready,” she said.
If caregivers aren’t available, these frail, homebound patients could deteriorate rapidly. “We don’t want to take them to the hospital, if at all possible,” DeCherrie said. “The hospitals are going to be full and we don’t want to expose them to that environment.”
In San Francisco, UCSF’s Care at Home program serves about 400 similarly vulnerable older adults. “Testing [for the coronavirus] is even more of a problem for people who are homebound,” said Perissinotto, who oversees the program. And adequate protective equipment ― gloves, gowns, masks, eye shields — is extremely difficult to find for home-based providers, Perissinotto said, a concern voiced by other experts as well.
To the extent possible, UCSF program staff are trying to do video visits so they can assess whether patients are symptomatic ― feverish or coughing — before going out to their homes. But some patients don’t have the technology that makes that possible or aren’t comfortable using it. And others, with cognitive impairments who don’t have family at home, may not be able to respond appropriately.
At UCSF’s general medicine clinic, nonessential medical visits have been canceled. “I have a lot of older patients with chronic pain or diabetes who otherwise would come in for three-month visits,” said Dr. Anna Chodos, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine who practices in the clinic. “Now, I’m talking to them over the phone.”
“I’m less worried about people who can answer the phone and report on what they’re doing,” she said. “But I have a lot of older patients who are living alone with mild dementia, serious hearing issues and mobility impairments who can’t work their phones.”
Andrea Amelse knows hand-washing.
For the past eight years, she’s been washing her hands pretty much every time she passes a sink. When she’s near a bottle of antibacterial gel, she uses it. She makes a point of avoiding people with contagious illnesses, even though it can be uncomfortable to ask to work from home or miss a date with friends. And she makes sure she gets plenty of sleep, not always easy at age 25.
Amelse was diagnosed in 2012 with lupus, an autoimmune disease that makes her vulnerable to infections. She’s since developed pulmonary arterial hypertension, a condition that requires intravenous therapy via a central line to her heart. Both illnesses place her at heightened risk for viral and bacterial illnesses. So, she has adapted as a matter of survival, taking to heart long-standing axioms on what constitutes good hygiene.
As the highly contagious new coronavirus continues its spread through the U.S., the general public could learn a thing or two from Amelse and the millions of other Americans with weakened immune systems who already live by rules of infection control. Whether it’s people who had recent organ transplants, people undergoing chemotherapy or people with chronic diseases, America has a broad community of immunosuppressed residents who long ago adopted the lifestyle changes public officials now tout as a means of avoiding contagion: Wash your hands, and wash them often. Don’t touch your face. Avoid that handshake. Keep your distance from people who cough and sneeze.
Amelse doesn’t follow the advice perfectly — of course she touches her face sometimes. “You do these things unknowingly, so forcing yourself to break these habits can be challenging,” she said. But the incentive to keep getting better is there. “If you get a cold and you give me that same cold, you might get it for a week. I’ll get it for a month.”
Even with her dedication, COVID-19 is proving a daunting prospect to face. And she has a stake in Americans adopting these habits because, while the disease is relatively minor for many people who get it, it can be life-threatening for people with preexisting conditions.
Amelse works at a health literacy startup in Minneapolis that helps patients with complicated diseases learn about their illness. She knows a lot about health and how to prevent infection. Still, the threat of COVID-19 is unnerving, for her and her doctors.
With a virus so new, official guidance on what people at heightened risk should do to steer clear of COVID-19 is limited. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said the virus seems to hit hardest in people 60 and older with underlying health concerns. There is also concern for younger people with limited immune systems or complex diseases.
Health officials are asking those at risk to stockpile two-week supplies of essential groceries and medicines in case they need to shelter at home; to avoid crowds and heavily trafficked areas; to defer nonessential travel; and to track what’s going on in their community, so they know how strictly to follow this advice.
Infection control always follows a similar set of principles, said Dr. Jay Fishman, director of the Transplant Infectious Disease and Compromised Host Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School. The most important things for people to do right now are the things he always recommends to his organ transplant and cancer patients. Again, think hand-washing and avoiding spaces where sick people congregate.
Still, the recommendations aren’t one-size-fits-all. Some people are born with stronger immune systems, and immune deficits exist on a spectrum, said Fishman. How strict people need to be to prevent illness can vary depending on how susceptible they are.
Recommendations also need to take into account what people can and will do, he said. Children, for example, are among the greatest germ vectors of all time, but Fishman doesn’t ask his patients with grandchildren to stay away from their young family members. “We did the transplant so you can see your grandchildren,” he might tell them.
Similarly, avoiding crowds and staying away from sick people is easy for some but can be all but impossible if you work in food service, for example. Find ways to avoid the risks and reduce them where possible.
Though there isn’t great research on how well transplant patients and others manage to prevent infection, Fishman said many of his patients don’t get sick any more frequently than the general population, despite their vulnerabilities. But when they do, the illnesses tend to last longer, be more severe and put people at higher risk for additional infections. He counsels patients to be vigilant, but also to live their lives and not be ruled by fear.
Dr. Deborah Adey, a transplant nephrologist for UCSF Health, echoed Fishman, saying she likes to find ways to help her patients carry on with their lives. A patient recently asked if it was OK to fly to Salt Lake City, and she suggested they drive instead.
Gauging the risks can be tough. Amelse was relieved when a major health conference she was scheduled to attend recently in Florida was canceled at the last minute. She wasn’t sure it was safe to travel, but it also was unclear how to categorize an important work trip: Was this essential? Nonessential?
Adey conducts follow-up appointments via teleconferencing where possible, to keep her patients out of medical facilities. Hospitals are, by design, places for the sick, and people with compromised immune systems are generally advised to avoid them and the viruses and bacteria potentially inside.
That matches advice from officials in California and other states, asking people to stay out of emergency rooms unless absolutely necessary. They are asking people, when possible, to call ahead to their doctors and stay home unless an illness is serious.
And, similar to what public officials are advising the general population, Adey does not recommend that her patients wear face masks when out in public or even at the clinic. “The only people I would recommend is if they’ve got a lot of close contact with the general public, and they can’t afford to be off work.”
While much has been made of the hoarding sprees for face masks, the empty hand sanitizer shelves are equally frustrating for Amelse. Every 48 hours, she has to mix and administer drugs she places in an IV that goes into her heart. Everything must be sanitized, and she typically gets monthly shipments of antibacterial wipes and sanitizer. If suppliers run out, she’s worried she’ll have to go to a hospital to have the drugs administered — exactly where her doctors don’t want her to be.
Officials are desperately working on a vaccine for the coronavirus for use in as little as 12 to 18 months. But many vaccines are made from live viruses and can’t be given to some immunosuppressed people.
Given the risk COVID-19 poses for people with compromised immune systems, the government needs to stress how important it is for everyone to follow good hygiene protocols, said Fishman. “The worst thing we can do is downplay it.”
And for those just getting up to speed on preventing infections, Amelse has advice: “Viruses don’t pick and choose; they will latch on anywhere,” she said. Even if it’s not a serious illness for you, “there are people in your life that you can infect. You have the obligation and the responsibility to take care of your loved ones.”
Country and local Governments continue to take measures to contain the virus as more Information becomes available to the public regarding what steps could help to reduce your risk of infection.Test availability may improve soon.
A few sites with relevant information are listed below. You can also click the image below to visit a site published by Avi Schiffmann a talented High School Junior from Washington State. The site automatically integrates all available information on the new Coronavirus in real-time and gives a good overview of current data.
Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/symptoms-causes/syc-20479963
Washington State Department of Health: https://newsroom.uw.edu/news/statement-covid-19-case-harborview-medical-center
Cedars Sinai Medical Center - LA : https://www.cedars-sinai.org/newsroom/coronavirus-what-you-need-to-know/
Do I know I’m at risk for developing dementia? You bet.
My father died of Alzheimer’s disease at age 72; my sister was felled by frontotemporal dementia at 58.
And that’s not all: Two maternal uncles had Alzheimer’s, and my maternal grandfather may have had vascular dementia. (In his generation, it was called senility.)
So what happens when I misplace a pair of eyeglasses or can’t remember the name of a movie I saw a week ago? “Now comes my turn with dementia,” I think.
Then I talk myself down from that emotional cliff.
Am I alone in this? Hardly. Many people, like me, who’ve watched this cruel illness destroy a family member, dread the prospect that they, too, might become demented.
The lack of a cure or effective treatments only adds to the anxiety. Just this week, news emerged that another study trying to stop Alzheimer’s in people at extremely high genetic risk had failed.
How do we cope as we face our fears and peer into our future?
Andrea Kline, whose mother, as well as her mother’s sister and uncle, had Alzheimer’s disease, just turned 71 and lives in Boynton Beach, Florida. She’s a retired registered nurse who teaches yoga to seniors at community centers and assisted-living facilities.
“I worry about dementia incessantly. Every little thing that goes wrong, I’m convinced it’s the beginning,” she told me.
Because Kline has had multiple family members with Alzheimer’s, she’s more likely to have a genetic vulnerability than someone with a single occurrence in their family. But that doesn’t mean this condition lies in her future. A risk is just that: It’s not a guarantee.
The age of onset is also important. People with close relatives struck by dementia early — before age 65 — are more likely to be susceptible genetically.
Kline was the primary caregiver for her mother, Charlotte Kline, who received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1999 and passed away in 2007 at age 80. “I try to eat very healthy. I exercise. I have an advance directive, and I’ve discussed what I want [in the way of care] with my son,” she said.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking I should probably get a test for APOE4 [a gene variant that can raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s], although I’m not really sure if it would help,” Kline added. “Maybe it would add some intensity to my planning for the future.”
I spoke to half a dozen experts for this column. None was in favor of genetic testing, except in unusual circumstances.
“Having the APOE4 allele [gene variant] does not mean you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease. Plenty of people with Alzheimer’s don’t have the allele,” said Mark Mapstone, a professor of neurology at the University of California-Irvine. “And conversely, plenty of people with the allele never develop Alzheimer’s.”
Tamar Gefen, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, strongly suggests having an in-depth discussion with a genetic counselor if you’re considering a test.
“Before you say ‘I have to know,’ really understand what you’re dealing with, how your life might be affected, and what these tests can and cannot tell you,” she advised.
Karen Larsen, 55, is a social worker in the Boston area. Her father, George Larsen, was diagnosed with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s at age 84 and died within a year in 2014.
Larsen is firm: She doesn’t want to investigate her risk of having memory or thinking problems.
“I’ve already planned for the future. I have a health care proxy and a living will and long-term care insurance. I’ve assigned powers of attorney, and I’ve saved my money,” she said. “Eating a healthy diet, getting exercise, remaining socially engaged — I already do all that, and I plan to as long as I can.”
“What would I do if I learned some negative from a test — sit around and worry?” Larsen said.
Currently, the gold standard in cognitive testing consists of a comprehensive neuropsychological exam. Among the domains examined over three to four hours: memory, attention, language, intellectual functioning, problem-solving, visual-spatial orientation, perception and more.
Brain scans are another diagnostic tool. CT and MRI scans can show whether parts of the brain have structural abnormalities or aren’t functioning optimally. PET scans (not covered by Medicare) can demonstrate the buildup of amyloid proteins — a marker of Alzheimer’s. Also, spinal taps can show whether amyloid and tau proteins are present in cerebrospinal fluid.
A note of caution: While amyloid and tau proteins in the brain are a signature characteristic of Alzheimer’s, not all people with these proteins develop cognitive impairment.
Several experts recommend that people concerned about their Alzheimer’s risk get a baseline set of neuropsychological tests, followed by repeat tests if and when they start experiencing worrisome symptoms.
“When it comes to thinking and memory, everyone is different,” said Frederick Schmitt, a neurology professor at the University of Kentucky. Having baseline results is “very helpful” and “allows us to more carefully measure whether, in fact, significant changes have occurred” over time, he said.
Nora Super, senior director of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, watched her father, Bill Super, and all three of his siblings succumb to Alzheimer’s disease over the course of several years — falling, she said, “like a row of dominoes.”
One of her sisters was tested for the APOE4 genetic variant; results were negative. This is no guarantee of a dementia-free future, however, since hundreds of genes are implicated in Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia and vascular dementia.
Rather than get genetic or neuropsychological tests, Super has focused on learning as much as she can about how to protect her brain. At the top of the list: managing her depression as well as stress. Both have been linked to dementia.
Also, Super exercises routinely and eats a MIND-style diet, rich in vegetables, berries, whole grains, nuts, fish and beans. She is learning French (a form of cognitive stimulation), meditates regularly and is socially and intellectually active.
According to a growing body of research, physical inactivity, hearing loss, depression, obesity, hypertension, smoking, social isolation, diabetes and low education levels raise the risk of dementia. All of these factors are modifiable.
What if Super started having memory problems? “I fear I would get really depressed,” she admitted. “Alzheimer’s is such a horrible disease: To see what people you love go through, especially in the early stages, when they’re aware of what’s happening but can’t do anything about it, is excruciating. I’m not sure I want to go through that.”
Gefen of Northwestern said she tells patients that “if [cognitive testing] is something that’s going to stress you out, then don’t do it.”
Nigel Smith, 49, had a change of heart after caring for his mother, Nancy Smith, 81, who’s in hospice care in the Boston area with Alzheimer’s. When he brought his mother in for a neuropsychological exam in early 2017 and she received a diagnosis of moderate Alzheimer’s, she was furious. At that point, Nancy was still living in the family’s large home in Brookline, Massachusetts, which she refused to leave.
Eventually, after his mother ended up in the hospital, Smith was given legal authority over her affairs and he moved her to a memory care unit.
“Now, she’s deteriorated to the point where she has about 5% of her previous verbal skills,” Nigel said. “She smiles but she doesn’t recognize me.”
Does he want to know if something like this might lie in his future?
A couple of years ago, Smith said he was too afraid of Alzheimer’s to contemplate this question. Now he’s determined to know as much as possible, “not so much because I’m curious but so I can help prepare myself and my family. I see the burden of what I’m doing for my mother, and I want to do everything I can to ease that burden for them.”
Kim Hall, 54, of Plymouth, Minnesota, feels a similar need for a plan. Her mother, Kathleen Peterson, 89, a registered nurse for over 50 years, was diagnosed with vascular dementia five years ago. Today, she resides in assisted living and doesn’t recognize most of her large family, including dozens of nieces and nephews who grew up with Hall.
Hall knows her mother had medical issues that may have harmed her brain: a traumatic brain injury as a young adult, uncontrolled high blood pressure for many years, several operations with general anesthesia and an addiction to prescription painkillers. “I don’t share these, and that may work in my favor,” she said.
Still, Hall is concerned. “I guess I want to know if I’m at risk for dementia and if there is anything I can do to slow it down,” she said. “I don’t want what happened to my mother to happen to me.” Probably, Hall speculated, she’ll arrange to take a neuropsychological exam at some point.
Several years ago, when I was grieving my sister’s death from frontotemporal dementia, my doctor suggested that a baseline exam of this sort might be a good idea.
I knew then I wouldn’t take him up on the offer. If and when my time with dementia comes, I’ll have to deal with it. Until then, I’d rather not know.
"Given that it serves as the brain’s built-in therapy mechanism regulating our negative moods, given that it acts as the brain’s janitor sweeping away toxins responsible for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, sleep may be the closest thing we have a superpower" ................. Read more
Bring the family out for the Where's Waldo 5k! Come dressed as your favorite Waldo! Join other Where's Waldo fans and have a blast at Green Lake Park!
This event will be "officially timed". The trail is fairly flat, rain or shine! Cost is $30 for adults which includes race, bib, photos, medal. costs for kids under 10 is $20 which includes race, bib, photos, and medal.
Come have fun with the entire family on a beautiful fall morning!
When: Saturday, October 26th, 2019 at 10:00 am
Address: Latona Ave NE, Seattle, Washington 98115
You are invited! All zombies and ghouls are encouraged to head to downtown Snohomish for a friendly (or not!) visit. Dress in your zombie or ghoul attire for a community walk! This event is a spooky fundraiser for the Snohomish Food Bank.
In preparation for the impending Zombie-Apocalypse, we're asking all participants and spectators to bring "rations for the survivors". (Food donations to benefit the Snohomish Food Bank. Cash donations are also welcome.)
Zombie face painting will be available at 2:00 pm in front of Artisans Mercantile (117 Glen St.) with all proceeds benefiting the Snohomish Food Bank.
Snohomish Food Bank truck and staff will be on site starting at 2:30 pm to accept food donations. Zombies gather between 3:00 - 3:30 pm at Artisans Mercantile.
At 3:30 pm important instructions and guidelines will be given. The walk begins at 4:00 pm.
When: Saturday, October 26th, 2019 at 4:00 pm.
Address: 117 Glen Street Snohomish WA 98290
Kirk Cameron will be bringing the Cameron living room to churches across the country, and wants you to join him for a heartfelt conversation about what matters most to husbands, wives and parents.
Think of it as a "home-run date night" with Kirk along with special music guest, Matt Hammitt.
Come enjoy a time to get away with your spouse for 3 hours to laugh, pray, learn and worship together as everyone dives deep.
You'll walk away from this event with a new lens to see your family through and you'll definitely be inspired to give your family a "Living Room Reset". Don't miss it!
When: Monday, October 6th, 2019 at 6:00 pm
Address: 4326 148th St SE, Mill Creek, WA 98012
Come check out OPEN GYM on Saturday's from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm!
Come have fun and try out the equipment or get some extra practice time!
Coaches will be on hand to answer questions and make sure that kids are safe.
Cost: $5 for members and $10 for non-members.
This hour can also be used for make-up classes.
*No open gym on 1/19, 3/2, 4/6, 5/25, 7/20, 8/31, 11/30, or 12/28.*
Address: 3707 124th St NE, Ste 9, Marysville, WA 98271
Are you ready, Seattle? Join in for the St. Jude Walk/Run during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September, to raise money for the kids of St. Jude, where families never receive a bill for anything. Let's end childhood cancer. Together.
When: Saturday, September 14th, 2019 from 8:00 am - 12:00 pm.
Address: 305 Harrison St, Seattle, Washington 98109