Alzheimer’s and dementia are thought of as elderly diseases, but they afflict many people under the age of 65.
Beth and “Turk” Flory on the dementia unit of North Central Health Care.
UW-Stevens Point Volleyball Coach Abbey Sutherland remembers the day when her family first started seeing changes in her mother, Rhonda. It was Christmas, and the family was playing a party game with simple instructions. But her mother just couldn’t grasp the rules.
Like many early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s not always easy to tell what are symptoms. On each subsequent return trip home in West Bend, Rhonda’s cognition seemed to grow worse. Tasks that once would have been simple to her suddenly became impossible. Each visit gave Abbey a glimpse into her mother’s deterioration.
Finally in 2013, four years after that Christmas day, Rhonda was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was only 56 years old.
While many people view Alzheimer’s as an elderly person’s disease, early onset Alzheimer’s and dementia are far more common than people think. More than 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s makes up 60% to 80% of all dementia cases and is characterized by the build up of plaques and tangles within the brain. There is no cure.
Sometimes physical trauma can trigger dementia. Beth Flory remembered the day in 2009 when her husband, “Turk” Flory, had the accident that led to his dementia. He was headed outside to dump out the sawdust box while creating a cabinet for his grandson when he slipped on ice and struck his head.
He seemed shaken but fine from the incident, Beth says. Then symptoms started to show up that Turk, in his mid-70s, hadn’t experienced before.
He couldn’t add the score of his card hand. “Numbers had been his game,” Beth says. He was an artist, but could no longer draw. He had played the violin, but no longer could.
The symptoms grew worse to the point where loud noises would cause him to freeze up. It was painful to see the man who earned the nickname Turk from boxing as a kid, and who once played professional baseball for the Milwaukee Braves Organization, suffer from this disease, Beth says.
In both cases Abbey and Beth’s families made the tough decision to send their loved one to a care facility. No one ever wants to, and many families say they will never do it, but most quickly learn the realities of caring of someone with dementia becomes too much to handle.
People who see signs of dementia should get their loved ones tested right away, says Abbe Klein, Marketing Manager for the Alzheimer’s Association of the Greater Wisconsin Area. If it is Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, families should start planning right away so the person diagnosed can be involved in the planning while he or she is well enough to do so. That plan will set clear guidelines—including when it’s time to transition from home to a unit designed to help manage the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Families should also take advantage of the growing number of support groups for families of loved ones with Alzheimer’s and dementia, Klein says.
There isn’t a cure for dementia, including Alzheimer’s, but a growing body of research points toward preventative measures, says Dr. Linda Bluestein, a medical doctor in Wausau who has reviewed a large body of research on the topic of brain health while preparing for a recent talk on pain management. Bluestein says being physically active, eating more leafy green vegetables, eating fish with high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, and lowering sugar consumption can all positively impact brain health.
There are genetic factors to dementia, but the expression of those genes can be influenced by the environment, Bluestein says. “The things we eat and do, what is in our environment, makes a difference.” Prevention is never 100% effective. But a healthy lifestyle can offer the best chance at staving off dementia.
Family involvement is one thing that’s changed over time in addressing dementia and Alzheimer’s, says North Central Health Care Social Worker Merry Wimmer. When she started in the field 25 years ago, people didn’t often visit family members once they were hospitalized; now it’s very common for them to do so.
Beth Flory visits her husband, Turk, at the dementia unit of NCHC nearly every day. It’s not home, but in one lucid moment, her husband took her hand and told her “I’m happy here.”
Sutherland has organized an annual match to benefit Alzheimer’s research for the past four years at UWSP. Last year’s event raised $7,100 and the league as a whole raised $11,000. Several players on the team also have family members with Alzheimer’s, Abby explains.
Christmases are hard for the Sutherlands now. But Abbey takes some solace in the fact that she and UWSP volleyball are doing their part toward fighting dementia and Alzheimer’s. “My heart goes out to anyone dealing with this,” Abbey says. “Anyone who wants to reach out to me can find me through the UWSP Volleyball page. I can try to make a difference.”