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Deborah Ann Tornillo

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Author's Saga Underscores Need for Alzheimer's Testing
Sunday, July 05, 2009  4:08:00 PM

by Deborah Ann Tornillo

Author''s Saga Underscores Need for Alzheimer''s Testing


"I noticed that when I would call them, (my mother) never shared anything anymore," Tornillo said. "This was slowly progressing, and by the time I got her into see a doctor to do a test on her and my father, (the doctor) told me at that point, 'Your mom has got a year and a half.'



The outlook for her father was about the same. So Tornillo became a full-time caregiver to her parents in 2006, moving them from their home in

San Antonio, Texas, to be near her in Great Falls, Virginia.

During the year and a half in which she cared for them she extensively researched Alzheimer's to provide the best care possible, even though she knew the disease would eventually win in the end. Her father passed away in October, 2007, and her mother died 36 days later in November.

"By the time we put mom and dad on the Alzheimer's pills that slow (the disease down) down, it was too late," said Tornillo, who wrote about her caregiving experience in 36 Days Apart: A memoir of a daughter, her parents and the Beast named - Alzheimer's: A story of Life, Love and Death.

Necessary Tests
By sharing her experience, Tornillo is hoping to draw more attention to memory loss and Alzheimer's. Given the severity of the disease, caregivers are not only concerned about their loved one's brain health, but also interested in early detection for their own benefit.

That's why the Alzheimer's Foundation of America recently introduced a new program that encourages local organizations to offer free, confidential memory screenings and education about brain health. As part of early detection, scientists separately continue to study Alzheimer's and the disease's pattern of brain damage.

"Memory screenings need to become as much of a household word as blood pressure checks," said Eric Hall, AFA's president and chief executive officer. "By providing convenient and free access to these screenings, we hope people will be more proactive about their memory concerns."

AFA is helping local groups host screenings by providing sites with screening tools and educational and marketing materials. It's also offering training and guidance on implementing the event, and publicizing the screenings on the AFA Web site.

A growing number of community venues, such as local Alzheimer's agencies, senior centers, long-term care facilities and retail pharmacies, have signed on to participate. Among them, pharmacists at 42 Fred Meyer stores in Oregon and Washington are providing screenings by appointment daily.

"We thought this would be a great thing because we're reaching people who might not otherwise get screened," said Jennifer Davis, pharmacy clinical coordinator at Fred Meyer. 

Screenings and Aging
Alzheimer's disease currently affects as many as 4.2 million Americans, but the rate of incidence is expected to triple by 2050 as boomers age. Warning signs include memory loss, especially of recent events, trouble completing familiar tasks, poor judgment and confusion.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's. However, the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute recently announced that it has joined with a major maker of diagnostic tests to speed development of what could be the first test to detect Alzheimer's in its early stages. The test could be particularly helpful for people with a family history of Alzheimer's worried about their risk, researchers said.

As part of the AFA memory screenings, qualified healthcare professionals provide educational materials, and administer a series of questions and tasks that takes about five to 10 minutes. Screening results do not represent a diagnosis, and individuals with below-normal scores are encouraged to receive further medical attention.

Some memory problems stem from reversible conditions, like vitamin deficiency or thyroid problems, while others result from irreversible conditions like Alzheimer's disease.



A report released by AFA late last year cited research that supports memory screenings "as a simple and safe evaluation tool that assesses memory and other intellectual functions and indicates whether additional testing is necessary." In addition, "screenings also can reassure the healthy individual and promote successful aging."



Cecily O'Connor


When reflecting about the last several years of her parents' lives, Deborah Ann Tornillo can clearly recall those times when her parents exhibited the telltale signs of Alzheimer's.

Deborah Tornillo

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