DAYTON — Willie Norman Walker was a Korean War veteran who regularly read the newspaper, loved to do crossword puzzles everyday that challenged his thinking, and as his wife Edna Walker said, “was the smartest person I know.”
An Army weapons specialist from Georgia, Walker ended his military service in the 1950s. But during retirement, he started forgetting where he was putting things and “just to look at his face and see the disorientation I knew something was wrong,” Edna Walker said.
She took him to a Veterans Administration Medical Center to get checked. The diagnosis was vascular dementia. Walker was in his early 70s.
“The VA was a big help to me. I called them, and I told them that my husband was a veteran and I want to get some help from the VA because he put his life on the line for us,” she said.
In Ohio, efforts to identify veterans at risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s are intensifying. In September, the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (CADRC) received a grant from the National Institute on Aging to specifically target and enroll veterans with mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s into dementia research. The data obtained will be put into a national repository for other researchers who want to study veterans and dementia.
“We’re very excited. This is a unique opportunity. It takes advantage of some of the strengths that Ohio has in terms of veterans. Wright Patterson is a great example. We really have an expertise of those resources that are sort of unique in the country,” said Dr. Martha Sajatovic, outreach, recruitment and engagement core leader at the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
In fiscal year 2020, an estimated 465,000 veterans nationwide were living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to an U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report. Veterans are at higher risk for dementia. Those with a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder are 60 more likely to develop dementia.
Ohio has about 877,000 veterans, according to the Ohio Department of Veterans Services. But in the Miami Valley, home to one of the United States Air Force’s largest installations — Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — there are 200,000 veterans. There is also a unique partnership among the Alzheimer’s Association, Wright-Patterson and the Dayton VA Medical Center that has existed for several years to identify veterans with cognitive issues and connect them to the Alzheimer’s Association for education, care consultations and support. The task force has a robust referral process for doctors to refer families to the Alzheimer’s Association after diagnosis for ongoing education and help.
The region is a great example of the need nationwide. Half of the Dayton region’s veterans are over age 65 and 20 percent have traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. Increasing age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
“Our Military Task Force, whose members are either veterans themselves or they work with the veterans’ population, are uniquely positioned to carry the message that veterans are more likely to get Alzheimer’s or dementia and encourage their families to seek help,” said Eric VanVlymen, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley Chapter. “I really believe this model can be replicated around the state and around the nation. By building sustainable partnerships with our veterans’ organizations we can work together to reach more people.”
Through efforts of the Alzheimer’s Military Task Force, volunteers have conducted 35 educational programs and reached more than 2,600 community members. Task force members have gone to local VFW halls and other places to meet with veterans’ groups, conducted training sessions for the VA, Ohio’s Hospice and Wright-Patterson physicians, and trained county veterans’ services officers about the free dementia services available through the association. The goal is to identify those with symptoms earlier in the disease process and to refer families with a diagnosis to the Alzheimer’s Association for support after diagnosis.
Cassie Barlow, chair of the task force and former 88th Air Base Wing and Installation commander at Wright-Patterson, said, “In the United States, veterans who are 65 years old and older, make up 65 percent of veterans. I am trying to end the stigma around getting help. People go to the doctor for physical ailments, why not do the same for cognitive and memory issues.”
Dr. Earl Banning, who is director of neuropsychology at Wright-Patterson and a task force member, is working to implement a plan to provide brief cognitive screening at age 60 instead of 65 and to restructure the neuropsychology clinic to be able to screen more people quickly.
“We have an elderly population here in the Wright-Patterson area. One of things that frustrates me being the neuropsychologist is so often I am getting referrals from people and the patients are 85. You ask them, when did this start and they say a long time ago…There is not much I can do as far as resources at that point and as far as extension of healthy cognitive functions,” Banning said.
“My hope is to have memory screening just like anything else,” Banning continued. “You’re 60, you check a box have you had memory testing.”
His plan is for one day a week to offer an open clinic where medical providers can send veterans or active duty military persons concerned about cognition to get screened.