One of the common misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease is that it afflicts only the elderly.
In fact, there’s a whole category called “younger-onset” Alzheimer’s, in which people 62 and younger contract the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 5 percent of the diagnosed population -- about 200,000 cases -- are classified as younger-onset.
Nancy Dixon learned last month that she’s among the 5 percent.
At 51, Dixon was in pretty decent shape when she started having problems recalling things and becoming confused while trying to follow directions.
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Her daughter, Nicole, 24, said the staff at the Macon-Bibb County Recreation Department first noticed her mother’s problems and insisted that she visit a doctor.
Two different neurosurgeons told the Dixon family that Nancy didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but an examination at Emory University Hospital revealed Nancy’s disease.
“I came back from Emory, and it was bad,” she said.
The diagnosis changed not only Dixon’s life, but the lives of her children as well. Nicole Dixon and her brother, Nicholas, 16, are now Nancy’s primary caregivers.
Dixon’s life has suddenly become more constricted. She’s on disability with the city and is confined to driving in close proximity to her Rutland-area neighborhood.
“I helped put in the Alzheimer’s Garden (in Macon) a few years ago,” she said. “I never dreamed I’d get Alzheimer’s. (The disease) is so terrible.”
In fact, Dixon falls into two categories. In addition to having younger-onset Alzheimer’s, she’s also been diagnosed as “early-onset” -- that is, in the early stages of the disease. People diagnosed as early-onset still have most of their cognitive functions.
Mott Smith, programs director for the Middle Georgia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, said that while there’s no cure, early detection and a healthy lifestyle can sometimes impede the disease’s progress.
There are 10 early warning signs that could indicate some form of dementia, the most severe of which is Alzheimer’s, Smith said. However, just because a person is forgetful doesn’t necessarily mean that dementia has occurred.
“If you have (memory issues), it’s important to go the doctor,” she said. “They need to rule out brain tumors, drug interactions, strokes, tuberculosis and other things. You need to see at least two doctors -- a neurologist or a psychiatrist. You’ll do a series of physical and mental tests, and they may do a brain scan or a CAT scan to check to see if any part of the brain has died, or if you’ve had a stroke or a mini-aneurysm.”
Smith said it’s important to be diagnosed early in order to begin treatment and for patients to get their affairs in order. It’s important for patients to exercise, watch their diets and to socialize.
While the disease isn’t hereditary, people can carry the gene for Alzheimer’s, Smith said.
“You can be tested for it with a spinal tap,” she said. “If you have the gene, there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll get it.”
Dixon has taken the advice of staying healthy to heart.
“I met a lady (with Alzheimer’s) online, and she said, ‘My advice is to run, run, run.’ So I’ve picked up on it,” Dixon said.
How long it lasts remains unknown.
“Everything is good right now,” she said. “But I know the worst is still to come. ... I think it’s better having it while I’m young, because I can still do what I want to right now. As it progresses, it will get worse, but right now, my life is a good standard.”
That’s something her children will have to adjust to even as they are still reeling from the news of the diagnosis.
“We’re still adjusting to the news,” Nicole Dixon said. “I don’t think it’s set in completely. ... I’m angry -- I’m kind of in denial. I don’t think I’ve accepted it 100 percent.”
Dixon said a minister came by their house when word started to spread about her condition, and she has found some comfort in prayer.
“I pray every day,” she said. “At first, (the diagnosis) altered my faith. But the more I thought about what he said, I’ve felt pretty good lately.”
Her children are still making the adjustments. Nicholas, a rising junior at Rutland High School, said he plans to try to live as normally as possible. He plans on playing football next year.
Nicole said she’s come to understand that the diagnosis is life-altering for her as well as her mother. Currently working at Geico, Nicole said she’s trying to adjust her schedule to better take care of her mother. Her plans to finish her degree online are up in the air.
“I feel like the future as I’ve known it is over for me,” she said. “I had plans to live alone, but obviously I have to take care of her. I definitely see the future differently than I once did.”
Smith said Alzheimer’s can be as grueling for caregivers as the patients themselves.
“It’s a family disease,” she said. “It affects the whole family. It takes an average of three caregivers for one patient. In the latter stages, the caregivers can become sleep-deprived. We have support groups I’d recommend.”
Smith compared the disease to a “bad spark plug” in an engine, since it starts at in one section of the brain but can spread to any of the brain’s different lobes.
“It’s different for each person,” she said.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.