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U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, left, visited Brightview Avondell in Bel Air South Wednesday to discuss recent developments in research and treatment of Alzheimer's Disease. Harris listens as Cass Naugle, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association's Greater Maryland chapter, speaks.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, left, visited Brightview Avondell in Bel Air South Wednesday to discuss recent developments in research and treatment of Alzheimer's Disease. Harris listens as Cass Naugle, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association's Greater Maryland chapter, speaks. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Alzheimer’s Disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and affects millions of Americans — as well as their caregivers — each year.

Touting increased federal funding for research and development of new disease-fighting technologies during a visit Wednesday to a retirement community in Bel Air, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris said he believes a cure for Alzheimer’s could be on the horizon.

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The tools are available now to “cure almost any disease,” such as Alzheimer’s, which causes severe cognitive decline, and sickle-cell anemia, which affects red blood cells, said Harris, an anesthesiologist and former medical researcher.

He spoke to about 25 people Wednesday morning at the Brightview Avondell retirement and assisted living community south of Bel Air. The gathering, called “A Coffee with Congressman Andy Harris, MD,” was a collaboration between Harris’ office, the Alzheimer’s Association and Brightview Senior Living to give residents the latest information on Alzheimer’s.

“We’re happy to be part of anything to raise awareness and help move the cause [of curing Alzheimer’s] forward,” said Andy Anderson, of the Brightview Avondell community.

Harris is a Republican who represents Maryland’s First District in Washington, D.C.; the district includes the Eastern Shore and parts of Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties.

The congressman has been a co-sponsor of legislation in the House of Representatives to promote greater research funding and public awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease, including bills introduced in recent years such as the Younger-Onset Alzheimer’s Act, which gives patients younger than 60 the ability to get access to services funded through the Older Americans Act of 1965; the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act, which supports healthcare workers in the areas of awareness, education, research and training; and the Improving HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act to give patients better access to care planning services and educate clinicians about care planning, according to a news release from the Alzheimer’s Association.

Harris recalled how “a very dear friend” of his parents suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.

“It’s so great that the cure is within our grasp,” he said. “We’re going to get it done.”

Harris noted, when an attendee asked him what exactly the cure is, that a cure has not yet been found — that depends upon discovering the cause of the disease. The two protein-based “prime suspects,” which damage and destroy neurons in the brain, are called “plaques and tangles,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association website.

The path to a cure is through finding out what causes those proteins to accumulate in the brain, according to Harris, who noted that “until you actually find the cause, we’re just left with treating symptoms.”

“I can’t say what it’s going to be, but we now have the tools to understand on a sub-cellular level what could be doing this, what could be causing the accumulation [of proteins],” he said of finding a cure.

Harris praised increases, from less than $500 million to close to $3 billion, in federal funding for research by the National Institutes of Health in recent years. Funding for NIH research into Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia stood at $448 million in 2011, grew to $2.4 billion in 2019, and advocates seek an increase to $2.8 billion for 2020, according to the Alzheimer’s Association website.

Harris said the discovery of an Alzheimer’s cure will be considered “a eureka moment” 20 years from now, and he noted the increase in funding means more “outside the box” research projects can get support. Harris said he has been an advocate for increasing overall funding and steering more grants to younger researchers.

“As you expand funding, now you’re able to fund projects that have a little less likelihood of ‘succeeding,’ but one of those projects could be the eureka project,” Harris said.

Mike Drabo, right, a resident of Brightview Avondell in Bel Air South, talks Wednesday about his experience living there while his wife has been treated for dementia. He addresses U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, far left, and representatives of the Alzheimer's Association and Brightview Senior Living.
Mike Drabo, right, a resident of Brightview Avondell in Bel Air South, talks Wednesday about his experience living there while his wife has been treated for dementia. He addresses U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, far left, and representatives of the Alzheimer's Association and Brightview Senior Living. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Patient and caregiver services

Nearly 6 million Americans, including 110,000 Maryland residents, live with Alzheimer’s Disease, and the nationwide cost of treating Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is projected to be $290 billion this year, increasing to $1.1 trillion in 2050. There are more than 16 million people in the U.S. who care for people with the disease for no pay, labor with a value of close to $232 billion, according to the association’s news release.

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Cass Naugle, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Greater Maryland chapter, and Yolanda Wright, the chapter’s early stage and support group coordinator, discussed services provided by their organization to patients and caregivers at Brightview Avondell on Wednesday.

Those services include a 24/7 help line, 1-800-272-3900, support groups, care planning consultations and gatherings for people living with the early stages of the disease such as the monthly Memory Cafe at the Bob Evans restaurant in Bel Air and Books & Beyond at the Bel Air Library. More information is available online at https://www.alz.org/maryland.

“The increase in research funding has made possible a whole, wide, diversity of approaches of attacking the disease,” Naugle said.

She said medications, which can be taken by patients living with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, are being tested, or medication can be combined with “lifestyle intervention” such as diet, exercise and social stimulation.

Mike Drabo, a resident of Avondell, shared his experience of caring for his wife after she developed dementia. He praised the services that have been provided by Avondell and the sister Brightview Bel Air community, which is across Ring Factory Road. Drabo’s wife receives advanced memory care through the Wellspring Village neighborhood in Brightview Bel Air, according to Anderson, the executive director.

Drabo said moving to the memory care unit “has been a really remarkably good thing for” his wife, as “she really has no short-term memory at all.”

He said his wife does not recall recent visits by her grandson and sister, “although she enjoyed the visits.”

“She’s thriving on the social stimulation at Brightview; she’s doing very well,” Drabo said.

He said stress levels for him and his wife have dropped, and his wife’s general health has seen significant improvement. He said that happens when his wife and other patients and caregivers come into "a really supportive caring environment, like they have at Brightview.”

“We would not have been able to get through the last couple of years without your support — and love,” Drabo said, becoming emotional. “Thank you.”

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