Trish Vradenbrug became a caregiver and patient advocate after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1986.

“All of a sudden my mother sounded very erratic,” says Vradenburg who was a sitcom writer on the TV show “Designing Women.” “I was in LA and she was in New Jersey. After going to a lot of doctors, we realized she had Alzheimer’s.”

Hastening the state of research

Her mother died 5 years later. Frustrated that “nothing had happened” to advance the diagnosis or treatment of the disease, Trish Vradenburg and her husband George decided to make fighting the disease their life goal. They co-founded UsAgainstAlzheimers, a nonprofit committed to stopping Alzheimer’s by 2020. Their work includes fundraising and awareness, as well as speeding up drug development for the disease.

Last year, 500,000 Americans died from Alzheimer’s. Worldwide, 7 million people are slowly dying from the disease and 44.4 million have some form of dementia.

“This is the largest killer now around the world,” says George Vradenburg. “It affects not just the person with the disease but 2 to 3 caregivers for every person who has the disease. It draws on them emotionally, financially and sometimes physically.”

Unique research needed

Research shows more women get Alzheimer’s than men, indicating the need for gender-based research. Unlike diseases such as HIV and cancer, which get a lot of attention and funding, Alzheimer’s awareness and funding has been limited.

“This is a cancer-sized problem that needs cancer-sized research,” George Vradenburg says, noting that, while cancer funding is $6 billion, Alzheimer’s funding is $1 billion.

So why doesn’t the disease have more recognition? “Once you get the disease, you can’t advocate for yourself,” says George Vradenburg, who explains diagnosis typically is made 2 to 3 years after impairment has already started. “We don’t have Alzheimer’s survivors. We have an older population.”

The age range for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is 70 to 75, with patients becoming “totally dependent” 4 to 5 years later. Families are focused on taking care of the patient — not on funding or awareness of the disease. Over half of nursing home patients have Alzheimer’s and $1 out of every $5 in Medicare expenses is spent on the disease.

Improving prevention

Healthy habits like diet, exercising and controlling blood pressure may help patients slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. “Don’t be afraid for a check up from the neck up,” says George Vradenburg, noting doctors can start with a cognitive test in-office and follow up with a PET scan, if needed.

Trish Vradenburg still feels a connection with her mother every day. She and her husband are encouraged by the clinical research that’s happening, including 15 pharmaceutical companies working to advance treatments. Currently, 19 medications are in the pipeline, including one that may help extend the period during which a patient’s Alzheimer’s is mild. That drug may reduce the rate of decline of the disease by 35 percent. There’s hope that patients may be able to take medicines to prevent Alzheimer’s too, like how those with heart disease take statins daily to ward off high cholesterol.