Sixty-five-year-old Howard Kirsch speaks fondly of his years growing up in New York City, and entering the broadcasting business. Perhaps his most fond memory is the day he met Carol Goldberg, who would become his wife.

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Howard and Carol tied the knot in 1973, and moved to Oakland, where they raised two daughters. The couple now have one granddaughter and are expecting another. The two seem to have led an ideal life. But Howard is dealing with a very difficult situation. His beloved Carol has young-onset Alzheimer’s disease at 62.

A recent phone interview with Howard made the effects of the disease painfully apparent. Five minutes into the conversation, Carol became confused as to why Howard was on the phone, and he had to set the phone down and console his wife. When she became more agitated, he dismissed himself from the phone conversation abruptly and hung up. It appeared to be just another Sunday evening at  the Kirsch residence.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is the second most feared disease after cancer. About 5.3 million Americans, of which approximately 480,000 are Californians, suffer from this disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 18 million people worldwide currently suffer from Alzheimer’s, a figure that is projected to double by 2025. WHO also states that 50 percent of the people with Alzheimer’s live in developing countries and this could increase to 70 percent by 2025.

An irreversible, progressive, and fatal brain disorder, Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by loss of memory and thinking skills and affects the behavior of the patient. It most commonly affects the elderly who are more than 80 years of age. However, it may affect people as young as 40, with the rate of affliction increasing exponentially with age.

The disease was first described in 1906 by the German physician Alois Alzheimer, after whom it has been named. Alzheimer found abnormalities in the brain of a patient. Further research has shown these to be tangles and plaques that are being formed by proteins in the brain. The plaques are formed by a protein called amyloid beta protein, and the tangles, twisted fibers, by the tau protein. The plaques are formed between nerve cells and the tangles inside the dying cell. Everyone develops some amount of these tangles and plaques as they age, but it has been found to be in large amounts in Alzheimer’s disease patients. Scientists are still trying to determine the exact role of these plaques and tangles. They currently believe that they block communication between the nerve cells. This disease has been found to be very complex; research in this area is still in its infancy.

Historically, the occurrence of Alzheimer’s Disease in the Indian population in India and the U.S. has been quite low. This could have been due to the fact that Indians did not have a very long life span. It could have also been due to the rare occurrence of the Apolipoprotein E14 gene, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some recent studies have also shown that curcurmin, an element found in turmeric—a spice used a lot in Indian cooking—might have a protective action against Alzheimer’s disease. Another possible reason may be incorrect diagnoses of the disease. However, now with more people living longer in India and in America, there could be an increase in the occurrence of Alzheimer’s in the community. It is therefore important for Indian Americans to be more aware and knowledgeable about this disease and the financial and emotional burden that it places on the patients and their families.

Twenty percent of California’s Alzheimer’s patients use available health care programs that have been in place since the 1980s. Yet, in response to the state’s $20 billion deficit, Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed debilitating cuts in, and even elimination of, these programs.

The Alzheimer’s Association is working hard on its advocacy efforts, educating the community, raising awareness, and speaking out against these cuts. Through their signature event, Memory Walk, that takes place nationwide, the association generates awareness of this disease within the community and raises funds for important research, education, and support for patients and caregivers.

The association will be holding its annual Memory Walk on Saturday, Sept. 11 at Mission Creek Park in San Francisco, and on Sept. 25 at Arena Green in San Jose. The events feature a 3-mile walk, with an optional shortcut at 1.5 miles, and are open to everyone.The San Francisco Memory Walk is one of the biggest in the nation; the San Jose walk is just a few years old. There is no registration fee or minimum fundraising amount. Individuals can join an existing team, start their own team, or walk on their own.

Community members are encouraged to participate in one of these two walks and join the nationwide movement to stop Alzheimer’s disease. To register for the walk or to donate visit www.memorywalk.kintera.org/sf10.

For more information, contact praveena@ramans.org (San Francisco walk only); or, (650) 962-8111; memorywalk@alznorcal.org. www.alz.org.

Praveena Raman is a volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association. Mekala Raman is a recepient of the 2010 Alzheimer’s Association Young Scientist Award.

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