Area woman shares her story with early Alzheimer's

By Lynn R. Parks

For nearly 20 years, Kathy Murray kept telling her doctor that something was wrong. A senior vice president of operations for All First Bank (now M&T), she found that on occasion, she had trouble concentrating.

"I would be making presentations to politicians and I would use the wrong word," said Murray, 59, of Frankford. "And I was talking about subject matter that I knew."

She had trouble remembering things. When someone left her a voice mail, she could not understand what the message said. "I would ask my secretary to transcribe the message so that I could read it," she said.

Murray underwent test after test, including MRIs and spinal taps. Diagnoses included Lyme disease, depression and, most frequently, stress and lack of sleep.

"I worked 75 to 80 hours a week," she said. "I thrived on stress. The busier I was, the more I liked it. I knew that whatever was wrong, it wasn't stress."

Finally, three years ago, when Murray was 56, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"I went through two weeks of neuro-psychiatric testing," she said. "The doctor found no indications of depression – I kept telling people I wasn't depressed – but there was moderate cognitive decline and my math skills were atrocious. And I had worked with numbers all my life."

Murray is among the increasing number of Delawareans who are living with Alzheimer's disease. According to a study just released from the Alzheimer's Association, the number of people in the First State suffering from the disease increased 17 percent over the last 10 years, from 12,000 in 2000 to 14,000 in 2010.

Nationwide, there are 5.4 million people with Alzheimer's disease. Now, a person in the United States develops Alzheimer's every 69 seconds. In 2050, there will be one diagnosis every 33 seconds, the association says.

All of this has consequences beyond those suffered by the patient and his or her family. This year, the cost of caring for people with Alzheimer's will be about $183 billion. That's $11 billion more than last year, an increase of more than four times the rate of inflation. "Between now and 2050, Medicare spending on those with Alzheimer's will increase nearly 600 percent, and Medicaid spending will increase nearly 400 percent," the association predicts.

Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Of those six illnesses, it is the only one whose death rates did not decrease from 2000 to 2008. And it is the only cause of death among the top 10 in America for which researchers have not found a way to prevent, cure or even slow its progress.

Murray is taking prescription medicine that helps to stabilize the disease's symptoms. She is still able to cook and take care of herself. And she drives to the grocery store and to a nearby school, to pick up her granddaughter.

But she has gotten lost in Georgetown and in Salisbury, two towns with which she is very familiar, she said. She is unable to help her granddaughter, who is in the third grade, with her math homework. And conversations with her husband, Robert, are hard to follow. "That is my biggest frustration," she said. "I have to tell him that I don't know what he's talking about, that I haven't caught up with him yet."

Jane Drace, of Seaford, was a caregiver for her husband, Don, who had Alzheimer's. Don, who was an engineer with the DuPont Co. in Seaford, was diagnosed in 2001 when he was 56. He died in December 2007 at LifeCare at Lofland Park, where he was a resident for four and a half years.

Don's first symptom, Jane said, was the difficulty he had taking care of his checkbook. "He would tell me, 'I don't know what's wrong with this,'" she said.

Then he started having trouble following conversations. Jane made an appointment for him with his family doctor and asked the doctor to refer Don to a neurologist. "When he received his diagnosis, he said, 'Well, I was wondering,'" Jane said. "He knew that now he was was not the norm."

Jamie Magee with the Sussex County chapter of the Alzheimer's Association said that the disease is difficult to diagnose. About 70 percent of all cases of dementia are because of Alzheimer's. Diagnosis is made by analysis of the symptoms.

"The beginning symptoms are the same things all of us do," Magee said. "Losing things, forgetting where we put the mail, and for most of us, it doesn't mean anything."

Even so, she said, early diagnosis is key for managing symptoms. "If there is a way to get earlier detection and earlier treatment, I'm all for it," added Murray.

Magee said that there is a genetic component for Alzheimer's, especially when the disease starts before age 65. Risk factors for onset after 65 include diabetes, heart disease and obesity. "Everything that you do to keep your heart healthy, you should do to keep your brain healthy," Magee said.

Alzheimer's is always fatal. About 80 percent of its victims die from aspirated pneumonia, because they forget how to swallow and get food in their lungs, Magee said.

But Murray, who is an active volunteer with the Alzheimer's Association and with the Frankford United Methodist Church, said that she isn't worrying about that.

"I'm not looking toward the end," she said. "I'm looking at today. What difference can I make today, not only for the Alzheimer's Association but for my family? What do I want to do today? And what kind of legacy do I want to leave?" "I don't feel any fear and I don't feel any anxiety," she added. "But I do worry about my family. It's important to me for my family to remember me as I am now. I want to be a positive influence on their lives."

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