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New CO Law Updates Dementia Language in State Statutes

Dementia Diseases and Related Disabilities Act

Gov. John Hickenlooper and supporters of the Act

One of the 432 bills that became law in the 2018 Colorado legislative session changes the language used to describe and define dementia and dementing diseases, and clarifies the official name of the Rocky Mountain Alzheimer’s Disease Center (RMADC) in state appropriations.

The measure, called the “Dementia Diseases and Related Disabilities Act,” changes the language in all state laws that refer to these conditions. Laws that were already on the books that used the words “Alzheimer’s disease” or “senile” were changed to incorporate the five word phrase “dementia diseases and related disabilities.”

Dementia diseases go beyond Alzheimer's disease

The word “dementia” is a condition wherein impaired memory, thinking and other brain functions result in the inability to perform activities of everyday living and there are many different causes. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common dementing disease among people over 65, accounting for as many as 70 percent of diagnosed cases of dementia. However, thousands of Coloradans suffer from other dementing diseases, such as Lewy Body dementia, Parkinson’s disease dementia, and vascular dementia, which may result from stroke. These dementing diseases can strike younger adults, and, like Alzheimer’s disease, they do not have cures.

RMADC Director Huntington Potter, PhD, said the language change in law helps expand people’s awareness of the nuances of dementia. “This is true, there are many dementias, and the heterogeneity needs to be appreciated by patients, caregivers and their physicians.”

The RMADC at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus receives state funding for research on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. In the law that supports this funding, the center is called the “Dementia Diseases and Related Disabilities Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.” This new name effectively encompasses the breadth of clinical and laboratory research at the RMADC, which is focused on Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementing diseases and related disabilities, including atypical presentations of Alzheimer’s disease, such as posterior cortical atrophy, primary progressive aphasia, and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease dementia, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in people with Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, sleep disorders and their relationship to amnestic mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, the contribution of white matter dysfunction to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, and Huntington’s disease. By focusing on these different forms of dementing diseases and related disabilities, RMADC researchers are moving the needle forward to advance innovative research projects that will ultimately provide key opportunities for gaining complementary insights. Discoveries in one disease may very well influence understanding of other diseases and inform potential new treatments.

Denver Post guest commentary

Despite its diverse ongoing research programs, Potter says the public name for the center will remain as the Rocky Mountain Alzheimer’s Disease Center, highlighting the majority focus of the center.

“Since its founding, the RMADC has been dedicated to both assessment and care for the full range of dementing diseases. For now, we will keep the term ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ in our title because it is the most common cause of dementia in the elderly. And it is well recognized by the public.”

Dr. Potter and Jonathan Woodcock, MD, clinical director of the RMADC, attended the bill signing by Gov. John Hickenlooper. They also co-authored a guest commentary, which appeared in the Denver Post, "Let's Talk About How We Talk About Dementia."

The bill was sponsored by state representatives Susan Beckman (R-Littleton) and Joann Ginal (D-Ft. Collins), and state senators Jim Smallwood (R-Parker) and Nancy Todd (D-Aurora). It passed easily with bipartisan support.

The idea for the measure originated with Littleton resident Kelley Horton, founder of the Dementia Connections Coalition.

Horton, who has worked extensively with those living with dementing diseases, hopes that updating and codifying the language will help reduce the stigma that often accompanies dementia. “Not only will it help begin to eliminate the stigma, but really focus on the strengths that are retained by someone with dementia, rather than what they’ve lost.”

Horton says people with dementia diseases and related disabilities will be added to the list that includes people with developmental disabilities. She says service professionals, like first responders, will be better trained to recognize someone with a dementing condition and to know how to take care of them most effectively.

Potter echoes that, and adds that one of the things people with dementia often don’t get is respect.

“An important outcome of this action by the legislature is to recognize that people with the disability of dementia deserve the same respect as any other person with a disability. They are members of our community, and we at the RMADC are dedicated to helping them and their caregivers.”​