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August 28, 2014

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Health Care:

Lou Ruvo Center helps those afflicted by diseases of memory, mood and movement

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Las Vegas Sun file photo

Larry Ruvo, founder of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, stands outside the center in this file photo.

Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

A view looking upward at the events center at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health Monday, February 6, 2012. Launch slideshow »

The illnesses treated at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health are described as diseases of memory, mood and movement.

But within those general parameters, each of the diseases — dementia/Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and multiple sclerosis — differs in its own way.

The most common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is an individual’s difficulty remembering newly learned information. It’s not uncommon for sufferers of the disease to ask questions or make statements over and over, often word for word. There’s no memory of having asked or answered those questions, even though they occurred minutes earlier.

The technical problem a patient is suffering involves the buildup of plaques and tangles in cells and the spaces between nerve cells. The destruction and death of the nerves is what causes memory failure, personality changes and problems carrying out normal life functions.

Because the brain has 100 billion nerve cells, called neurons, the onslaught of the disease is slow. Alzheimer’s patients can live an average eight years after symptoms first become noticeable to others.

Today, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, which has a regional office in Las Vegas. It’s the primary disease researched and treated by the Ruvo Center.

Like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease is a progressive illness.

“There are four cardinal features of Parkinson’s,” said Dr. Ryan Walsh, director of the center’s Parkinson’s disease and movement disorders program. “They include tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement and postural instability, and all of those symptoms worsen over time.

Walsh said medications tend to control or minimize the symptoms but become less effective over time.

With a tremor, a patient can be sitting calm while one side of the body moves involuntarily. Once the tremor quiets, a patient can perform a task, but when he or she stops, the involuntary movement returns.

Rigidity and slowness of movement affects such simple tasks as writing, combing hair, brushing teeth and using eating utensils. Instability, when pronounced, can be so bad that a patient can’t walk. They say their movements seem frozen.

“The problem is that it’s not one or the other, but a constellation of all those symptoms, and they can affect mobility and dexterity and the ability to work and interact with others,” Walsh said.

Walsh said about 1 to 3 percent of the population is afflicted with Parkinson’s, so it’s estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 Southern Nevada residents have some form of the disease.

A rarer disease the institute treats is Huntington’s disease, which afflicts 300 to 500 people in Southern Nevada. But Walsh said of those 300 to 500, only about 10 percent seek a diagnosis or treatment.

The disease manifests itself first by affecting a person’s mood. Patients get depressed, irritable and paranoid, and it’s not uncommon for them to hallucinate — disrupting relationships at home and at the workplace. A genetic disorder that is passed from parent to child, Huntington’s patients often are given psychiatric treatments when first diagnosed.

Years later, patients are beset with movement abnormalities that Walsh said are referred to as “classic dancing movements.” People with the disease fidget, grimace and make sudden jerking motions. As the disease progresses, it affects a person’s thinking process.

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