By Donald Wittkowski
The Aug. 8 death of country music star Glen Campbell from Alzheimer’s disease showed once again that the devastating, memory-robbing disorder doesn’t discriminate.
It can kill celebrities just as easily as it does scores of ordinary people, stressed Dr. David Roeltgen, a neurologist who has been treating the disease for 35 years.
“Ronald Reagan, that’s about as well-known an Alzheimer’s patient as there is,” Roeltgen noted.
The 67-year-old Roeltgen doesn’t believe that a cure will be found during his lifetime, but he is determined to fight the disease nonetheless as the director of a new treatment and research center devoted to Alzheimer’s patients and their families.
The Flora Baker Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Center opened July 25 in a Shore Physicians Group office next to the ShopRite supermarket off Route 9 in Marmora.
The facility, affiliated with Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, is the first of its kind in South Jersey. Previously, Alzheimer’s patients had to travel to Philadelphia for treatment, hospital officials pointed out.
“The Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Center will fill a tremendous need in our region for treatment and support for patients with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones,” Ron Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Shore Medical Center, said when plans for the facility were announced last February. “Currently, there is limited availability of providers and knowledge to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and associated disorders.”
Roeltgen explained there is a strong reason why the Alzheimer’s center is located in Cape May County, an area popular with senior citizens because of its upscale beach communities and relatively mild winters.
“Cape May County is the second-oldest county in the country,” he said.
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.
Aging is the biggest factor for developing Alzheimer’s, a fatal disorder that falls under the umbrella group of brain diseases known as dementia. Alzheimer’s is becoming more common now that members of the baby boomer generation have begun slipping into their elderly years, Roeltgen said.
“What the disease does is, it breaks down the person,” he said of the inevitable decline in mental acuity.
Quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients usually erodes within five years of diagnosis. Death usually comes within eight to 12 years, Roeltgen added.
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.
Hoping to boost the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients, the new center provides a streamlined approach toward the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Patients will benefit from a “continuum of care” involving doctors, family members and professional caregivers.
The facility will offer treatment for patients, support for their families and clinical trials of experimental drugs to combat Alzheimer’s.
“Every aspect of their life – the patient, the spouse and the caregiver – is affected by the disease,” Roeltgen said. “We’re talking about a life-changing problem.”
Roeltgen estimated the Alzheimer’s center will see an average of five new patients each week.
The facility was funded by a $500,000 donation from the Ocean City Masonic Lodge No. 171 through an endowment for Alzheimer’s treatment established by the now-deceased Flora Baker, a local businesswoman. Baker set up the endowment in honor of her late husband, Benjamin, who was a member of the Ocean City Masons.
Currently, the center’s staff includes Roeltgen, a medical assistant, a social worker and a patient-family educator. Over the next six months, Roeltgen envisions adding a geriatric psychiatrist, a neuropsychologist and a clinician.
Talks are underway between the Alzheimer’s center and Johns Hopkins Medicine, the acclaimed hospital and healthcare system based in Baltimore, about working together on a program to boost the quality of life for patients and minimize stress for their caregivers, Roeltgen said.
The program will look for ways to keep Alzheimer’s patients out of the hospital and delay them from being placed in nursing homes, both key factors in the management of the disease and reducing medical costs, 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 said that 10 years ago, he was optimistic that a cure would be discovered within his lifetime. But now, he doesn’t believe it will happen in his lifetime.
“We don’t know. That’s the thing,” he said bluntly.
A series of Alzheimer’s studies are expected to be published around 2020, fueling speculation among optimists that a cure may be around the corner. But Roeltgen isn’t as confident.
“It’s far, far more complicated than what we think,” he said.