By Donald Wittkowski
Dr. David Roeltgen, a neurologist who has been treating dementia patients for 35 years, told an audience of mostly senior citizens Wednesday in Ocean City that their prospects of appearing on the brain-teasing game show “Jeopardy” seem remote, at best.
“You don’t see a lot of senior citizens on Jeopardy,” he said, drawing muffled laughter from the audience. “Jeopardy is a young person’s game.”
Roeltgen wasn’t trying to make a joke. His remarks underscored an unfortunate fact of life: As people get older, their mental acuity generally declines.
Roeltgen noted that aging is the biggest factor in developing Alzheimer’s, a fatal disorder that falls under the umbrella group of brain diseases known as dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is becoming more prevalent now that members of the baby boomer generation have begun slipping into their elderly years.
Shore Physicians Group runs an Alzheimer’s treatment and research center based in Cape May County to help patients and their families cope with the memory-robbing disease.
The Flora Baker Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Center opened last July in a Shore Physicians Group office next to the ShopRite supermarket off Route 9 in Marmora. Roeltgen is the center’s director.
The Alzheimer’s facility is the first of its kind in South Jersey. Previously, Alzheimer’s patients had to travel to Philadelphia for treatment, hospital officials pointed out.
Shore Physicians Group and Shore Medical Center, the Somers Point hospital, are educating the public about dementia and other diseases through a community lecture series this year that is free to the public. On Wednesday, Roeltgen addressed about 75 mostly elderly people at the Ocean City Masonic Lodge during a two-hour forum focusing on Alzheimer’s.
“This is a scary disease, folks,” Roeltgen said bluntly.
Quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients usually erodes within five years of diagnosis. Death usually comes within eight to 12 years, according to Roeltgen.
Despite extraordinary breakthroughs in medicine overall, the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and the cure have thus far eluded the medical world.
Roeltgen explained that a person’s genetic makeup and family history are key factors in Alzheimer’s.
“There are multiple types of genetic influences on dementia,” he said.
Clearly, aging is the biggest component. As the U.S. grows older, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease has become more dramatic.
“More than likely, it’s the fact that we’re living past 65,” Roeltgen said.
Globally, an estimated 44 million people have dementia, he told the audience.
“It’s more common than AIDS and more common than the people who die of stroke,” he said.
The Alzheimer’s Association says more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease. Even grimmer, the figure could rise as high as 16 million Americans by 2050, the association estimates. Currently, one in three senior citizens in the United States dies of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, according to the association.
Cape May County’s aging population is a major reason why the Flora Baker Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Center is located in Marmora. In an interview last year, when the center first opened, Roeltgen said Cape May County is, population-wise, the second-oldest county in the United States.
Demographic data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that, as of July 1, 2016, 25 percent of Cape May County’s population was at least 65 years old. That number is up from 21.6 percent of the county’s population in 2010.
Hoping to boost the quality of life for dementia patients, the Flora Baker center provides a streamlined approach toward the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Patients benefit from a “continuum of care” involving doctors, family members and professional caregivers.
The facility offers treatment for patients, support for their families and clinical trials of experimental drugs to combat Alzheimer’s.
The center was funded by a $500,000 donation to Shore Medical Center from the Ocean City Masonic Lodge No. 171 through an endowment for Alzheimer’s treatment established by the now-deceased Flora Baker, a local hotel owner. Baker set up the endowment in honor of her late husband, Benjamin, who was a member of the Ocean City Masons.
Family members are quite often the primary caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients. Roeltgen and his staff at the Alzheimer’s center focus not only on the patients, but also the caregivers, as part of the support network for treating the disease.
Unfortunately, Roeltgen said, there’s “no Bible” to guide spouses and other family members in their role as caregivers. He believes that the country is “uneducated and undereducated in this regard.”
“None of them made Oprah Winfrey,” Roeltgen said of any Alzheimer’s guides or books being included in the talk show host’s popular book club.
At least one recent study cited by Roeltgen suggests that caregivers can do just as well using their common sense and just “bungling along” than following any systematic approach for Alzheimer’s patients.
“I don’t think this is unlike taking care of kids,” he said.