The Disparate Impact of Alzheimer’s Disease

Editors Note: This piece was adapted from live remarks made by Representative Norm Johnson at the 2016 Yakima Town Hall hosted by the Alzheimer’s Association. Join the association in Olympia Feb. 9 for 2017 Advocacy Day.

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Rep. Norm Johnson speaking at a floor session on February 16, 2016, the 37th day of the Legislative Session.

Alzheimer’s is the third leading age-adjusted cause of death in the state of Washington. While the death rates for cancer, stroke, and heart attack are on the decline, that’s not true of dementia-related illnesses. More than 107,000 people in the state of Washington suffer from Alzheimer’s or other related dementias. Alzheimer’s does not differ because of age, wealth or position in life. I think of Yakima resident Debbie [Hunter] and her young husband. I recently attended the memorial service for the wife of our former United States Congressman. So as I say, Alzheimer’s doesn’t know wealth, it doesn’t know age and it doesn’t know your position in life.

Every part of our state is affected by this disease. The impact is felt not only by the victims of Alzheimer’s but, I believe, even more so by the families that have to bear the emotional and the financial responsibilities. Because we do not yet have a cure to prevent Alzheimer’s, the future impact of this age-related disorder looms large in our nation. But we have every reason for hope. With increased public attention and resources, we can change the course of this disease and how we can identify effective ways to treat or to prevent Alzheimer’s and related dementia as soon as possible.

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Rep. Johnson with Gov. Jay Inslee

In 2014, the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 6124, which directed the development of a statewide Alzheimer’s plan. That fall, before the session, I happened to be at a meeting at the University of Washington on dementia and related disorders and I happened to sit next to Senator Karen Keiser who, at that time, was chair of Health Care in the State Senate. We were appalled to find out we didn’t have an Alzheimer’s plan in Washington. I and she and others in the Legislature have been on the Joint Legislative and Executive Committee on Aging & Disability for the last three years, with the goal of developing an Alzheimer’s plans – and we did come up with an Alzheimer’s plan.

We are fortunate here in the state of Washington to have the University of Washington Medical School and research facilities that dot our regions. Hopefully it’s going to be one of those organizations that are eventually going to find a cure for this dreaded disease. When we passed the bill that was the starting point. While there is no known cure at this time I am hopeful through research here in the state of Washington we will find that cure.

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I hope and pray that that will happen sooner than later. I am not anywhere near the youngest member of the Washington State Legislature. In fact, I have the distinction of being the oldest member of the Legislature. As you progress in your age you think of diseases like Alzheimer’s as age-related, but really, they’re not. Alzheimer’s affects every generation and I want to see a cure before I have the opportunity to meet my maker.

I know some of you reading this are family members; others of you are professionals; and you have a huge challenge as we do in state government. As a member of the Health Care Committee I can assure you that this is uppermost on the minds of the Committee members and our Chairman, Representative Eileen Cody from West Seattle. So I want to thank you for what you do for your loved ones and for the 107,000 people living with Alzheimer’s in Washington.

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