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ND has highest rate of Alzheimer's in nation

BISMARCK-Moving back to Bismarck in 2007 after retirement brought an unexpected change to Jane Beauclair's life as she noticed her mother's memory slipping away. The changes started small with her mother forgetting to turn off the stove but it wa...

BISMARCK-Moving back to Bismarck in 2007 after retirement brought an unexpected change to Jane Beauclair's life as she noticed her mother's memory slipping away.

The changes started small with her mother forgetting to turn off the stove but it was enough to warrant some live-in help.

"She was forgetting things enough that we didn't thinks she could live by herself," Beauclair said. "It's progressively gotten worse now."

Her mother, now 101, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in her mid-90s and is among 14,000 North Dakotans suffering from the disease.

North Dakota has the highest rate of Alzheimer's deaths in the country and it is the third leading cause of death in the state, according to the Alzheimer's Association, but no one knows why.


"It's not a pattern we recognize," said Dr. Stephen Pickard, epidemiology field officer for the CDC in North Dakota. "Most theories have yet to be validated."

There are several factors that can contribute to the disease, including genetics, cardiovascular risk factors and age, which is a dominant factor in the state.

"We have aging populations that we didn't used to have," Pickard said. "People used to die sooner."

Taking age out of the equation, North Dakota still has the second highest rate of Alzheimer's deaths after Washington.

Gretchen Dobervich, vice president for the Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, said that there is another factor that makes North Dakota's statistics so strange: the state's largely Caucasian population.

Alzheimer's appears more often in Hispanic and African Americans because of the connection between Alzheimer's and other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are difficult to manage without access to health care.

"If you were to map it, you wouldn't see a pattern," Pickard said. "Could it be random? If it was truly random, you would see a wide variation and not the same states year after year."

The logical conclusion, he said, is there is an underlying common factor that researchers haven't discovered yet.


The Alzheimer's Association predicts that, by 2025, the number of people with Alzheimer's in North Dakota will increase by 14.3 percent.

The cost

Though the disease in her mother developed late and she can still remember herself and her children, Beauclair said it has taken a toll.

"It's amazing she can still feed herself, but my mother's always been so obstinate," she said. "I feel pretty lucky she still knows me."

According to Pickard, Alzheimer's is one of the most devastating diseases because it is progressive and degenerative and has no cure or way to reverse the effects.

"It simply destroys the person," he said. "The single most common feature is the inability to lay down new memories."

The progression of the disease is different in every person, according to Dobervich.

"Some people will progress very quickly, and some people will exhibit symptoms other people won't," she said. "It is different, but people will exhibit some of the same commonalities."


Symptoms include memory loss, changes in perception, low attention span.

The costs of the disease, financially and emotionally, fall on the caregivers and family members.

In 2014, costs not covered by insurance of caring for a family with Alzheimer's was about $414,000, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The money is a small chunk of what caregivers go through: Many are keeping family members with Alzheimer's home longer, leaving jobs to care for them and becoming more secluded, according to Dobervich.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, nearly 60 percent of caregivers rate the emotional stress very high and, nationally, caregivers had $9.7 billion in additional health care costs for themselves in 2014.

"It's pretty tremendous," Dobervich said. "As the disease progresses, you have to care for someone who can no longer direct their care."

There are ways to keep from falling apart when caring for a relative with Alzheimers, according to Dobervich, who said caregivers should educate themselves on the disease, make financial arrangements and develop a care plan.

The next step

The most important thing to do when a family member begins developing symptoms, such as memory loss, is to be see a doctor. It is important to know whether the symptoms are related to Alzheimer's.

"If you don't know what you're dealing with, you can't make a plan," Dobervich said. "There are a lot of things that can look like Alzheimer's."

Some include depression, sleep apnea, brain tumor or a cardiac condition, and many diseases that appear like Alzheimer's are treatable.

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