Boomers worry about Alzheimer's

The recent death of an American icon from Alzheimer's disease, and aggressive marketing of products intended to treat it, are contributing both to public understanding of age-related dementia and to individual anxiety over what may be normal signs of aging.

By all indications, Ronald Reagan's public announcement of his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994 spiked a first wave of national interest in the disease. The former president's death in June pushed public concern to the flood stage.

"The hysteria factor has set in," says Lois Schneider, 56, a volunteer for the Alzheimer's Association in Sarasota.

"Every time I can't remember a word or a name, or I can't remember what the French and Indian War was all about, I get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach," Schneider says.

At a conference she attended on Alzheimer's recently in Tallahassee, recalls Schneider, "A woman about my age got up and said, 'I'm one scared cookie.' That's the way we all feel, I think."

First studied by a task force of the American Psychological Association in 1998, the fear of Alzheimer's, clinicians say, has grown at a faster rate than the disease itself, which now now afflicts 4.5 million Americans.

"When I started here seven years ago, we saw maybe 120 people a year," says Nancy Teten, clinical coordinator of the memory disorder clinic on the University of South Florida campus in Tampa, one of the first such facilities in the state when it opened in 1986.

"Last year, we saw 1,200," says Teten, 50, who admits to moments of concern about her own occasional memory lapses.

Pfizer, the drug giant whose Aricept is the most widely prescribed of the four drugs believed to temporarily forestall memory loss and dementia for some Alzheimer's sufferers, recorded a threefold increase in the number of people seeking information in June and July. Company spokesman Alison Lehanski would not disclose actual numbers, beyond quantifying the increase as in "the tens of thousands."

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