Would You Want to Know a Decade Early If You Were Getting Alzheimer's?

The author pictured with her husband Dallas, who has Alzheimer's.

(Courtesy of Susan Richter Dillon)

Editor's Note: A team of researchers in Italy recently used artificial intelligence and machine learning to diagnose Alzheimer's disease on a brain scan an entire decade before symptoms show up in the patient. While some people argue that early detection is critical, others believe the knowledge would do more harm than good. LeapsMag invited contributors with opposite opinions to share their perspectives.

I first realized something was wrong with my dad when I came home for Thanksgiving 20 years ago.

I hadn't seen my family for more than a year after moving from New York to California. My father was meticulous, a multi-shower a day man, a regular Beau Brummell. He was never officially diagnosed with dementia, but it was easy to figure out after he stopped leaving the house, stopped reading, stopped being himself. My mother knew, but she never sought help. After his illness showed itself, I asked her if she considered a nursing home. "Never," she told me. "I can take care of him." And she did.

She gave herself a break once to visit me, and it was the first time she traveled separately from him since they eloped at seventeen. My brother watched my father, and it was not smooth. Dad was angry, hallucinating, and demanding his gun, which had been disposed of long ago. While Mom was visiting me in California, we played some board games. One demanded honest answers. The card read, What are you most afraid of? "Dementia," she said.

My father never saw this coming, none of us did.

Dementia ran on my mother's side. Her mother, my Nana, was senile, the popular diagnosis for older folks back then. My grandfather tried his hardest to take care of her, but she kept escaping their tidy 6th floor apartment to run away. My mother would go over every day to take care of them, but once my grandfather became ill, she took her mother into our apartment. She had two small children, Nana, and her husband in a two-bedroom flat. Nana talked to people under plates, wore tissues on her head, and tried to escape. We were on the first floor, so she could run into traffic if all eyes weren't on her. Soon, it was too much, even for my Wonder Woman mom. Nana was placed in a nursing home and died soon after.

My mother dropped dead on a NYC sidewalk two years after my father started to deteriorate. She was probably going to the store to buy milk and cigarettes. A kind stranger called 911, and a cop came to my parent's door soon after to tell my dad the news. My father cried for death, raged and ranted, then calmed down enough to come back as the dad we remembered for the week of mourning. He even ordered a Manhattan at dinner. His death came exactly a week and an hour after my mother's. He died of a broken heart. My husband cried with all his body after we left the cemetery, weeping, "Poor Buck. Poor Buck." I never saw him cry before.

Now, 18 years later, I sit here with my husband, 59 years old, as he suffers from the same hideous disease.

He is talking to someone I can't see, even laughing with him. He holds a Ph.D. in literature, taught college, had a single handicap golf game, and ate well. We never saw this coming. One day he went to type and jumbled letters came on the screen. He would show up late or early for his classes, wondering what was wrong with the students. He started running red lights. He was graciously counseled to retire, and he did, at 55. His doctor told him it was depression. The second opinion agreed. He was told to do nothing for a year, and he did. He played golf a bit, then one day he couldn't speak or think clearly. I came home from work to find him roaming the neighborhood, eyes ablaze, muttering to himself. I went on family leave. Many tests later we got the working diagnosis, but it meant nothing to him. He never reacted to the words Primary Progressive Aphasia or dementia. I was glad. If he was lucid, I knew what he would talk about doing. He told me after my dad's death that he did not want that life for himself.

I worry I may get it, too. It almost seems inescapable. Dementia has no cure, and the treatments for the symptoms are hit and miss. I thought about getting the full flight of predictive tests, but I know myself, and I scare myself into bracing for the worst. Others scare me, too, when I read their online statements about ending their lives if they learn they have it: I told my children to take me to a state where assisted suicide is legal; it's easy to overdose; I don't want to be a burden on my children. These are caregivers on social media forums. They live with the terror, eyes wide open. We have no children, but who would I burden? My sisters? My brother? Do I stay or do I go? This disease invites pandemonium. Assisted murder-suicides with caregiver spouses of those with dementia don't merit headlines, but their stories are on the sidebars. No thanks. I work on God's timeline.

There are no survivors – yet.

A diagnosis today would paralyze me and create melancholy for all who know me. I would second guess everything, I would read everything, I would cry, I would hardly live. I would be tempted to pick up that first drink after 20 plus years sober. I would even think about ending my life. It would be difficult not to consider. As a high school English teacher, I talk about suicide when I teach Hamlet. I tell the students suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Dementia isn't temporary. There are no survivors – yet.

I often think what my relatives would have done with an advance diagnosis. My grandmother was a classic worrier. She would have been beyond distraught. My father might have found that gun. My husband would have taken the right number of pills.

An advance diagnosis would paralyze me.

I appreciate the arguments for early diagnosis. Some people are made of sterner stuff. They have the mindset I lack. I admire so many who are contributing to the current conversation about dementia and are active advocates for a cure. They have found a purpose in their fate.

I don't need a test to get my ducks in a row. Loving those with dementia has prompted me to be prepared. I have a different type of bucket list: reset my priorities, slow down, be present, educate others, and make my legal plans. If and when it happens, there will be time for toast and tea and a walk along the shore. There will be time to plan for the inevitable and unenviable end. I am morbid enough to know I will recognize the purple elephant in the room. I don't want the shock and awe now. I can wait. My sisters agree. We will keep our elbows out.

Editor's Note: Consider the other side of the argument here.

Susan Richter Dillon
Susan and Dallas met in graduate school at St. John’s University. They have been married 22 years and are grateful for their circle of support in Modesto, California, and beyond.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on
Photo by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.

Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
Virus image by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.

Hear the episode:

Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is the summer editor of Leaps.org. Most recently, she was a staff writer covering biotech at OneZero, Medium's tech and science publication. Before that, she was the associate editor for biomedicine at MIT Technology Review. Her stories on science and medicine have also appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and STAT.