Myriam Marquez suspected she had Alzheimer’s when, while driving a familiar route home, she came to a four-way stop and realized she didn’t know where she was. The confusion lasted a short time, but Marquez, 66, whose father and six uncles all died of Alzheimer’s, knew what it could mean. She went to a neurologist and although the tests showed nothing was wrong, a similar incident a year later prompted her to undergo DNA testing. The test was positive for mutations in the familial gene presenilin 1, an indicator for Alzheimer’s. That was more than three years ago, and Marquez, who had a successful law practice in the Seattle area, is now a full-time advocate for Alzheimer’s research and early diagnosis. She also is a peer-to-peer adviser for the Seattle-based Western and Central Washington State Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, serves on the national association’s Early-stage Advisory Group and is the first person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s to serve on the local organization’s board of directors. “What I decided to do was to be proactive. I chose to go out there and do everything I can to take Alzheimer’s out of the closet. It is a hidden disease. I believe that unless there are those of us who have the courage to go out there and put a face to Alzheimer’s, a cure is not going to be found,” Marquez says.
Marquez isn’t alone. More than 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s—approximately 150,000 reside in Washington state. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.
“‘Dementia’ is an umbrella term, like ‘cancer,’” says Keri Pollock, communications director for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Western and Central Washington chapter. It is defined as a decline in mental ability that will become severe enough to interfere with daily life. “The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s, which accounts for 60–80 percent of all dementias.”
While there currently is no laboratory test to definitively diagnose the onset, or type, of dementia—a confirmed diagnosis can only be made post-mortem—most diagnoses are made based on symptoms and a series of tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans.
“Alzheimer’s is a progressive, degenerative and fatal disease, but some research is demonstrating that non-pharmaceutical approaches can delay the progression, allowing a person with dementia to stay independent longer,” says Pollack. “Twenty years ago, we recognized that there is still a lot of living to be done with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, especially if you are diagnosed early.”