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Alzheimer's Disease Adds to Hurdles During Recovery From Surgery

Aired January 15, 2001 - 4:36 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. Reagan also suffers, of course, from Alzheimer's disease. Joining us from Washington to talk about that aspect of the former president's health and how it might affect his recovery is Dr. Daniel Alkon. He's the scientific director of the Rockefeller Neuro Science Institute.

Thanks for being with us, sir. Can you talk about the specific difference right after surgery for an Alzheimer's patient? Obviously, we've all had disorientation after you've had general anesthesia, but for an Alzheimer's patient, I would think it would be really unnerving.

DANIEL ALKON, ROCKEFELLER NEURO SCIENCE INSTITUTE: Yes, Joie. I think we can't possibly understand what it's like to have Alzheimer's disease unless we go through that dreadful experience, but we have a good idea. All patients coming out of major surgery, such as -- we just heard about Ted Williams -- will experience disorientation and often some memory loss. This is due to the fact that we have a lower oxygen level and we go through that surgery and this has an impact. Lower oxygen level will cause some disorientation, often some loss of memory, not knowing quite where you are.

Of course, Alzheimer's patients, early in the disease, face that problem right away. It's important to remember, with President Reagan, that he's well advanced in his disease. He doesn't just have the problem of a loss of orientation in space and time. He has all other -- many other of his systems in his body effected by the disease. Those afflictions will of course impact on his recovery. With a hip operation, he has to become mobile. He has to go through some exercises, he has to start moving around so he aerates his lungs. Of course, all of this is more difficult for a Alzheimer's patient.

CHEN: So, is there a physical difference for an Alzheimer's patient? I mean, are there differences in how his muscles may respond, or is it just a difficulty in communicating to them: look, we need to work on your mobility, your balance, and these sort of things in explaining to him what you need him to do to help him recover, or is there actually a change in the physically conditioning caused by the Alzheimer's itself?

ALKON: I think there is a change in the physical conditioning in the advanced stage, such as President Reagan is currently in. By that time, that you enter into the advanced stage, you have muscle wasting, you have bone loss way over and above what an older person would ordinarily experience. This will, of course, make it more difficult for him to recover. Also, it's harder, as can you understand, for President Reagan to understand suggestions and determinations of what he might do to help himself.

That why it's so important with this devastating disease, to get at it early in the course of the disease, and the earlier we can diagnosis the disease and start to apply some of these promising therapeutic strategies that we are coming across -- including at the Rockefeller Neuro Science Institute -- the more likely we are to prevent the ravages of this dreadful disease.

CHEN: Dr. Alkon, we appreciate your information.

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