Life’s Journey: Moving Forward After an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Along with eating a healthy diet, watching your weight and nixing bad habits like smoking, not getting enough sleep or letting stress get the best of you, two of the best ways to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s is staying active, both physically and mentally.

For 70-year-old Linda Milligan, keeping busy just comes naturally. Whether playing with her granddaughter, staying fit with yoga class, or traveling all over the world, Linda enjoys her retirement to the fullest, but her fast-paced life hit a speed bump when her husband started noticing some subtle changes.

“You know, sometimes Linda would ask me the same question maybe within an hour and she wouldn’t remember the answer,” says Larry Milligan.

Diana Kerwin, M.D., internal medicine and geriatrics physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and at Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says it is common for family members or friends to recognize symptoms before the patient does.

“She would forget that they had talked about something and she would repeat conversations or repeat things that she had said to him already, so he probably noticed more of the symptoms than she did,” says Kerwin.

Kerwin, who is also chief of Geriatrics at Texas Health Dallas, is an expert in memory disorders, acting as the medical director of the hospital’s Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders program. Dr. Kerwin’s areas of research include the identification of risk markers and prevention of cognitive decline and dementia. As a skilled internist and award-winning researcher, she is focused on the prevention and treatment of memory loss due to Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

After Kerwin ran cognitive testing, blood work and brain imaging, Linda was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“She had mild memory issues, so it’s a really early stage disease. We did find the presence of what we call amyloid plaque from a specialized scan of Linda’s brain,” says Kerwin.

Amyloid plaques are one of the two brain abnormalities that define Alzheimer’s disease. The other abnormality is neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaque is a sticky buildup of protein which accumulates outside nerve cells and eventually causes the nerve cell to die.

“I think I went into a funk for four months,” Linda laughs. “Totally in disbelief.”

A memory disorder diagnosis has no easy answers, but Kerwin and her staff take a comprehensive, proactive and personalized approach for every patient.

“Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias, tends to be something that requires a lot of education and information,” Kerwin says. “It’s hard to share all of the information in one office visit, so what we try to do is focus on medications, diet and exercise, and make sure they understand their medical treatment plan, and answer any questions they have.

“And then we also make sure they go to a support group, and get more education and information there from others,” Kerwin adds.

Many Texas Health Resources hospitals offer a variety of Alzheimer’s and memory care support groups, including groups for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients. These support groups aim to provide a safe, confidential and supportive environment where participants can find and offer mutual support and friendship with others who are experiencing the same situation as them.

Another important aspect to Kerwin’s approach is Alzheimer’s research. Being on the medical frontlines gives her patients a head start on any medical advances.

“The research is moving along quickly and there are new things we can do today, and that’s sort of what this program is all about,” Kerwin says. “It’s giving patients every bit of the medical information we have to help slow the progression of the disease. And for those patients who want to participate in the research side of it, we provide access to clinical trials for them.”

Both Linda and Larry are appreciative of the many different opportunities and options Kerwin and her practice provides, opting for a clinical trial that is monitored by Kerwin out of her office.

“We’re getting in trials and we’re going forward and we’re doing things,” Linda says.

Despite Linda’s diagnosis, she and her husband take comfort in knowing that Kerwin and the Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders clinic will be there with them every step of the way.

“They’re just nice people and caring, and understand the situation,” Linda says.

“That’s really our job, to help them get through this journey,” Kerwin adds.

Linda and Larry say Linda’s diagnosis has not stopped them from living life to the fullest and doing the things they enjoy.

“We have several trips planned—we’re not putting our lives on hold and we’re continuing our activities,” he says.

“Go to yoga, go walk three miles, just do our thing,” Linda adds. “Just get up and go forward every day.”

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