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Billionaire Publix supermarket heiress dies of early-onset Alzheimer's at 65

Early-onset Alzheimer’s makes up less than 10% of all people with the disease.
Carol Jenkins Barnett, seen here in 2009, was the daughter of the founder of Publix Super Markets. She announced her diagnosis five years ago.
Carol Jenkins Barnett, seen here in 2009, was the daughter of the founder of Publix Super Markets. She announced her diagnosis five years ago.AP
/ Source: TODAY

Carol Jenkins Barnett, whose father founded Publix Super Markets and who went from a cashier to a billionaire philanthropist during her career, has died after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She was 65.

Barnett passed away from related complications in her home on Dec. 7 surrounded by her family, with a memorial service held on Saturday, the company and an obituary announced.

“The Publix family is deeply saddened by the loss of a great humanitarian and community advocate,” said Publix CEO Todd Jones, in a statement.

The wife, mother and grandmother started her career with Publix — a chain of supermarkets in the Southeast founded by her late father, George W. Jenkins — in 1972 as a cashier in Lakeland, Florida, and went on to become the president of the company’s charitable arm.

Forbes called her “an heir to the Publix Super Markets fortune,” estimating her net worth to be $2.5 billion this year.

But the wealth could not prevent her disease, nor stop it from progressing.

Barnett’s early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis was announced in the summer of 2016, when she was 59 and decided to step down from the board of Publix to focus on her health and spend quality time with her loved ones. Her family called it a “deeply personal” battle.

“In sharing our journey, we hope to provide greater awareness and education of Alzheimer’s disease,” she said in a statement at the time. “We remain strong and hopeful that a cure will be on the horizon… there is much for our family to process and to learn about the challenges before us.”

What is early onset Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, robbing people of their memories and the ability to carry on a conversation or perform daily tasks.

Most patients experience symptoms starting in their 60s, but less commonly, it can also affect people who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are still working and taking care of their families.

When the disease impacts a person under 65, it’s considered to be younger-onset Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

It makes up less than 10% of all people with the disease, the National Institute on Aging noted.

What are the risk factors?

Doctors don’t understand why the disease can strike so early.

A few hundred families around the world have rare genes that directly cause Alzheimer’s, affecting many family members in multiple generations, including younger people, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

But most of the time, genetics don’t seem to play a role in early-onset cases — even though family history does increase risk when it comes to the late-onset variety.

What are the symptoms?

The warning signs are very similar to the symptoms older people experience, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They include:

  • Memory problems that disrupt daily life, such as getting lost in a familiar place, repeating questions or losing track of dates.
  • Trouble handling money and paying bills.
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.
  • Decreased or poor judgment.
  • Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps to find them.
  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior.

A recent study suggested a simple test that anyone can take may be able to detect subtle signs of dementia earlier than currently used screening tests.

How is early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosed?

It can be a “long and frustrating process” because doctors generally don’t look for Alzheimer’s disease in younger people and sometimes attribute the symptoms to stress, the Alzheimer’s Association noted.

There is no one test that confirms Alzheimer’s disease, so patients who are experiencing memory problems should write down their symptoms and get a comprehensive medical evaluation from an Alzheimer’s specialist, it advised.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but medications can help lessen or stabilize symptoms for a limited time. Physical activity, cardiovascular and diabetes treatments, antioxidants and cognitive training may help slow the progress of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.