A cure for Alzheimer's disease which afflicts hundreds of elderly people may be a long way off, but continuing social interaction and activity can keep patients mentally agile and slow the crippling illness, say experts.
"Not many know that Alzheimer's is a disease and not a normal process of ageing with phases of forgetfulness and slowing down of activities. Once the early stage is past, the person slowly goes blank," N.M. Narula, president of the Delhi chapter of Alzheimer's and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI), told IANS.
Marking World Alzheimer's Day Wednesday, ARDSI has planned weeklong activities to put the spotlight on a disease that is estimated to have afflicted over three million in India.
Experts say if immediate family members and caretakers of Alzheimer's patients are taken into account, the number of people touched by the illness could be anywhere between six and 30 million people.
So far scientists have not found any clear-cut answers to prevent or cure Alzheimer's disease, said Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, director of the Manesar, Haryana-based National Brain Research Centre.
"Research on possible vaccines to prevent Alzheimer's has not shown the results we would have wanted. Research has, however, shown definite evidence that enriched cages with toys, exercise equipment and social interaction can at least postpone Alzheimer's in mice," Ravindranath told IANS.
Experts have also stressed the need for a population study to know the burden of people suffering from Alzheimer's in India and to spread awareness as early detection of the disease can help tackle the early stages of the illness and improve the quality of life.
Work is still on to replicate in humans evidence that oestrogen hormone replacement, if given to women at the onset of menopause, can help prevent Alzheimer's which generally occurs in people over 65 years.
Similarly, genetic studies to pinpoint the pathology of Alzheimer's disease has established that genes in 10 percent of cases can be blamed for the occurrence, but "in the bulk of cases there is no such evidence", said Ravindranath.
A source of some satisfaction for neurologists like K.S. Anand, who heads the neurology department at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital here, is that there is greater awareness about Alzheimer's among medical practitioners and the public.
"An active lifestyle, healthy diet with plenty of greens and higher education are among things that can help slow down the progression of Alzheimer's, as has been found in a study of the rural population in southern India," said Anand.
Among the large number of patients he attends in the out-patient department of his hospital, Anand on an average comes across two to four new cases of Alzheimer's every week.
In the first stage of Alzheimer's, a debilitating disease, the patient goes through the agonising stage of knowing the progression of the illness. After this, it is the caregiver who faces the agony of seeing a loved one gradually lose memories and become totally dependent for every need.
Many among caretakers end up requiring treatment for depression and other stress-related problems.
Each stage of the illness generally lasts for three to four years and by the third or last stage, the patient can lose the ability to speak, become bedridden and even lose understanding about body motions.
The helpless of an Alzheimer's patient was to some extent brought alive by Amitabh Bachchan in the film "Black", which Narula feels was not well exploited to create public awareness.