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One in two people 85 and older and one in eight 65 or older will develop Alzheimer’s, according to research conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association.

It is the nation’s sixth leading cause of death, and the only one in the top 10 causes that has no way to prevent, cure or slow down its progression.

“People think memory loss and aging is going to happen to someone else,” said Linda Gottfried, regional director for the Southern Maryland area of the Alzheimer’s Association National Capital Area. “Alzheimer’s is not part of normal aging. It is a brain disease and it’s a hard sell, because we don’t have any survivors.”

Since 1989, the association has been holding walks to fund research and education. On Sept. 17, Southern Maryland will host two Walks to End Alzheimer’s one in Waldorf at the Regency Furniture Stadium and one at Asbury-Solomons Island retirement community.

More than 600 walkers have registered, with organizers aiming to hit the 800 mark with last-minute participants signing up on the day of. Check in for both walks is 8:30 a.m. with an opening ceremony at 9:30 a.m. and the walk at 10 a.m.

Several bold face names will be at each U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles), Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles), Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles), Charles County Sheriff Rex W. Coffey (D) and Charles County commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) are slated to be at the Waldorf walk.

But others who see the ravages of Alzheimer’s up close every day will be participating too.

Regina Cunningham, director of Life Enrichment at Morningside House retirement community in Waldorf, and her colleagues formed a team to walk.

Once a month, Cunningham runs a support group for families dealing with Alzheimer’s.

“This disease is taking over so many of our seniors,” said Cunningham, who urges families to continue talking to their loved ones of memories, share pictures and keep those affected with the disease engaged as much as possible.

“We tell them, ‘They’re still your mom or dad’,” she said. “‘You’ve known this person all your life … you just have to learn to know another side of them.’”

Last year, the Southern Maryland walks raised $114,000 for the association. This year’s goal is $140,000.

“The reason why money is being raised is to find a cure, to find a way for us to get ahead of this,” Cunningham said.

According to the association’s 2011 research, as many as 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease 86,000 in Maryland, 130,000 in Virginia and 9,100 in Washington, D.C.

The disease is not only devastating to those affected, but family and caregivers who are tasked with providing care to them emotionally and financially.

The association’s 2011 report estimates there are 716,640 caregivers in the metropolitan area who have provided more than 8 million hours of unpaid care.

“Alzheimer’s is a significant threat not only for the nation but also for the residents of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia,” Robert Comeau, chairman of the board of directors of the Alzheimer’s Association National Capital area chapter said in the report. “With a rapidly aging population at increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s and the number of caregivers growing each year, it will become increasingly important for states to be prepared with dementia-capable support services for people at all stages of the disease.”

Those participating in the walk are being proactive, Gottfried said.

“People are very passionate about this,” she said. “They see it, they experience it in their families, they might be seeing their own future and they want a cure.”

staylor@somdnews.com