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Ignorance Is Not Bliss

The Importance of Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s

As I’m writing this, it’s been almost exactly five years since I had an annual wellness exam that ultimately led to my diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. I’ll be forever grateful that I got the diagnosis very early in the progression of the disease, which has afforded me the opportunity to not just live but live well in spite of the diagnosis.

I’m also aware that my story could be quite different because at that time—in October 2018—I had been downplaying the importance of changes in my lifestyle that turned out to be linked to Alzheimer’s.We think the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are memory loss and confusion, but there are many others.

My three main changes stand out:

First, throughout my life, I had prided myself on needing very little sleep, in part because it gave me an extra 10-20 working hours each week! Starting in early 2018, however, I’d started sleeping through the night and even taking naps during the day.

Second, throughout my professional career, I relished the social aspects of jobs. I loved constantly meeting new people and going to social gatherings, large and small. By mid-2018, however, I’d begun avoiding large social gatherings and often asked other administrators to attend them in my stead.

Third, I got lost on my way to that wellness exam in October 2018. At the time, I laughed it off because my doctor was in a new location I’d only visited once before, so I didn’t think it was a big deal.

Turns out, however, these things were big deals. But I didn’t proactively mention them to my primary care physician. Rather, she asked me if anything unusual was happening with my lifestyle, and then had me take a mini cognitive test—which I failed! Five months and multiple tests with different physicians later, I received the formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

The Gift of Early Diagnosis

Upon getting this diagnosis, I initially went through all the typical reactions: fear, despair, depression, anxiety.

And yes, my life now is very different from what it was before. I quit my job as the chancellor of the University of Denver. My husband and I have moved to a new community that is quiet, filled with walking trails and mountain views. I don’t maintain as many social connections as I used to nor attend large social functions. I don’t travel as far or as extensively as I once did.

But I’ve come to appreciate that getting an early diagnosis—when most of my cognitive abilities were still intact—has been a true gift. It has allowed me to make deliberate changes that have led to a fulfilling and health life over the past five years.

  • Though it was difficult to retire from my academic profession, I still have the capacity and now have the time find new challenges. My choice was to become an Alzheimer’s advocate.

  • I am more physically active than ever before. I have always enjoyed hiking and now do so with my new dog! I life weights and try to do ballet.

  • I chose to make changes in my diet are helping to slow the progression of the disease. I found new foods to love.

  • In searching for new ways to stretch my brain, a friend demanded I explore the arts through painting. Though a bit reluctant at first, I love doing my art. Learning to be creative has allowed me to develop new ways to see and understand the world.

I don’t want to imply that my choices should be your choices. Rather, my message is that if you get an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, you have choices that you won’t have if diagnosed at a later stage of the disease. And you may get more time to love your family and friends and to give back to your communit

Changes Could Be Symptoms

Whether or not you have a family history of Alzheimer’s, as I do, part of my work as an Alzheimer’s advocate is to urge people not to ignore any changes in their health or lifestyle.

Start paying attention to changes that break lifelong habits or patterns—anything “unusual,” in the language my physician used. Let your doctor know. Get the Get the diagnosis now, life a bring-healthy life style, and have more time to love and have some fun, even with this disease.


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