Wearing awareness

The color purple instantly brings to students’ minds images of a singing dinosaur; most don’t relate the color to Alzheimer’s awareness month. Just as pink ribbons symbolize breast cancer awareness, the purple ribbon is meant to draw attention to the issue of Alzheimer’s disease, which affects 16 million people worldwide.

“We have nearly 50,000 people (with Alzheimer’s) in Tampa Bay,” said Eileen Poiley, director of education for the Suncoast Alzheimer’s and Gerontology Center in Tampa.

Former President Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004, was one of many who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Reagan began Alzheimer’s awareness week in 1983. In that same year, Congress declared November as Alzheimer’s awareness month. He approved the creation of a task force that would oversee and coordinate scientific research on Alzheimer’s to find its cure. Since then, many strides have been made to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, yet the cure eludes researchers.

“It is hard for me because I am never home,” said Jason Old, a graduate student about his grandmother who lives in North Carolina.

He said the disease only worsens over time.

“She couldn’t tell the difference between my brother and me, then me and my cousin,” Old said. “And then she couldn’t recognize my dad, her son.”

The Johnny B. Byrd Center of Excellence is a new Alzheimer’s research institute being built on Fletcher Avenue. While the institute is on the USF campus, it is renting the land from the Board of Education for the next 99 years. The Byrd Center is set to open in the winter of 2007.

The goal of the center is to conduct clinical trials of new drugs, work with patients and educate patients and caregivers.

“Florida has the highest percentage of elders, and the older you get, the greater the risk for having Alzheimer’s,” said Melanie Meyer, chief of external affairs at the Byrd Institute.

This month, the Byrd Center has been working with other institutions across the state to make the cause of Alzheimer’s more noticeable. They are focusing on educating caregivers, be they paid caregivers or family members who take care of their loved ones.

Meyer said the majority of Alzheimer’s patients’ caregivers are middle-aged women who eventually end up quitting their paid jobs.

“Taking care of these patients causes stress and depression,” she said.

According to Meyer, the stress and depression aren’t the only tolls the job takes.

“Caregivers are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s,” Poiley said.

The Byrd Institute and the Suncoast Alzheimer’s Gerontology Center, which is USF’s Alzheimer’s research and patient-care facility, are working together to find a cure and educate people about the disease.

This month both institutes are having lectures, dinners and free screenings to promote awareness of this disease that affects 4.5 million Americans.

“Ultimately, we all have the same goals because the need in this community is great,” Poiley said.