June 13, 2014 at 8:38 AM ET
Only a few years ago, Maria Bruno Kane may have been the perfect employee. Always diligent, organized and always eager to learn new things, Kane started having trouble on the job. Things that were once easy suddenly became difficult. She became forgetful and tasks, like making sure people were paid on time, were left undone.
Since Maria was only in her mid-50s, the problems could easily be chalked up to stress, maybe lack of sleep. But a chance encounter between her husband, Daniel, and a doctor led Maria on a medical and life journey that no one wants to take. After myriad neurological tests, the then 59-year-old was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“I knew I was having problems, but I had no idea it could be Alzheimer’s,” says Maria, 63, of Oak Park, Illinois, who decided to take an early retirement from her job and now spends her days enjoying life with her husband. “If I were able, I would still be working.”
Kane’s condition is unusual for Alzheimer’s: Symptoms of the disease usually begin after age 65. But as baby boomers continue working past typical retirement age, the problems of older workers dealing with early symptoms of Alzheimer's could become more common.
Just last week, model and restaurateur B. Smith, 64, revealed to CBS News that she, too, has been battling the condition for several years. Smith, a former TV host, says she told her doctor about her memory issues, such as repeating things, before she told her husband.
“You do try to hide it from everybody,” Smith told CBS News. Her symptoms have continued to progress, although she tries to maintain a positive outlook and continues working at her New York City restaurant.
Alzheimer’s disease affects some 5 million people in the United States. Younger-onset disease like that affecting Kane or Smith or legendary women's basketball coach Pat Summit, who retired after being diagnosed at age 59, affects only an estimated 200,000 people. Yet they experience the same symptoms, such as memory problems or cognitive difficulties, as those who are older.
“From a biological point of view, a younger person has the same disease as an older person, with the major difference being that a younger person is at different stage in life,” explains Dr. David Bennett, director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Indeed, developing Alzheimer’s at a younger age can simply be a case of being dealt a bad hand since only a small percentage of patients who are diagnosed in their younger years have inherited genes that directly cause the disease.
Alzheimer’s is difficult at any age. But for those who are diagnosed while they are relatively young, the challenges can be especially tough.
“These are people who may be working and they generally first start to notice symptoms while on the job, ” says Monica Moreno, director of Early-Stage Initiatives at the Alzheimer's Association, which established an advisory group of both younger and older individuals who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “They might have to quit. They might have children at home. They might be taking care of an older relative.”
Even getting a diagnosis can be tough for younger people, says Moreno, since symptoms may be incorrectly attributed to other problems like stress and health care providers may give conflicting diagnoses.
Although peer support is essential to everyone with Alzheimer’s, it can be especially important for those with younger-onset disease. “The issues under discussion are very different for a younger cohort, even though the disease is the same,” says Rush’s Bennett, and those issues may involve work, disability, and children, for example. “It’s important for people to talk to each other and share the painful issues that are unique to them.”
That’s what Maria and Daniel Kane believe. They are part of a Rush Alzheimer’s support group called Without Warning, which is geared to those with younger-onset disease.
“It’s really great for us since it helps us realize we are not alone,” says Daniel, 67, who is also retired, but keeps busy working as a DJ and doing family-tree research.
The couple is planning trips to Wisconsin and Florida this summer. They say Alzheimer’s disease isn’t going to stop them. “You asked what a good day is, and I think every day is a good day,” says Daniel. “Everything is relative, and I’m grateful for every day that I have with my wife.”
Maria says she doesn’t waste too much time thinking about the future.
“I thank God I’m okay so far,” says Maria, who is enrolled in a clinical trial testing a new Alzheimer’s medication. “I take walks, and I try to keep moving and stay active. None of us are promised a tomorrow, so I’m happy for today.”