Investing in Alzheimer’s leads to earlier diagnoses, better care

An abstract view of a doctor serching the human brain for Alzheimer's and dementia. (Image: PopTika, via Shutterstock)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has the chance to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia by signing SB 48, a bill on his desk that would provide much needed aid and training to Medi-Cal healthcare providers to improve early detection of cognitive impairment.

As the daughter of someone living with Alzheimer’s disease, I know first-hand the impact this legislation will have – especially in helping families like my own receive a timely dementia diagnosis.

I live in Northern Monterey County, but care for my aging parents who live in San Jose. I typically accompany my dad to his doctor appointments to translate and make sure that I can help him with follow-up care.

SB 48 by state Sen. Monique Limon would codify a new Medi-Cal program into state law that would incentivize providers to conduct cognitive health assessments.

During a routine appointment about three years ago, I brought up concerns that some of my dad’s typical behaviors seemed a little off. The doctor performed a standard cognitive assessment and then rationalized why these behaviors could be a normal part of aging. After two years of having the same conversation with my dad’s doctor, and after learning the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease through my role as a volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association, I sought a second opinion.

The new doctor had more training around cognitive decline, took my concerns more seriously and began ordering follow-up tests. Unfortunately, my father’s health began to decline rapidly and he fell one day while at home. He was taken to the emergency room and had a CT scan that showed signs of a previous stroke, but still didn’t point to an immediate Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

This began a period where my father was hospitalized five times within three months. Not having an official Alzheimer’s diagnosis prevented my dad from qualifying for certain safeguards during his hospital stays – things like special hospital bed monitors, in-room caretakers, and door notifications alerting hospital staff of his diagnosis. Not only did this make his hospital stays more stressful for our family, it made them riskier and didn’t allow him to access the highest quality care.

My story is not unique.

In 2020, over 690,000 Californians age 65 and older were living with Alzheimer’s disease – a disease that cost California’s Medi-Cal program nearly $4.2 billion last year. In the Latino community, we are not only more likely to have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, we are also typically diagnosed in the later stages of the disease, once we are more cognitively and physically impaired and likely in need of more medical care.

We need more awareness to better prevent, understand, and diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and we have an opportunity to change the trajectory here in California.

The Legislature recently passed SB 48 by state Sen. Monique Limon, sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, which would codify a new Medi-Cal program into state law that would incentivize providers to conduct cognitive health assessments as well as undergo additional dementia-specific training. This bill is currently supported by $25 million in proposed funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, through a program called Dementia Aware.

Codifying the program into state law would continue the program, potentially benefiting hundreds of thousands of Medi-Cal beneficiaries in obtaining timely diagnoses and hopefully avoiding costly and dangerous situations like the one my family faced.

I had the pleasure of meeting with legislators earlier this year to request their support of SB 48 as it moved through the legislative process.

On behalf of hundreds of thousands of Alzheimer’s patients and families in California, I humbly ask Governor Newsom to sign SB 48 into law to help families like mine access the timely dementia diagnoses they deserve.

Editor’s Note: Author Yolanda Stowabunenko is a resident of Monterey County and the daughter of an Alzheimer’s patient.Al

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