Sandy Springs woman struggles with Alzheimer's diagnosis at 55 -

Sandy Springs woman struggles with Alzheimer's diagnosis at 55

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The Alzheimer’s Association estimates about 200,000 Americans are living with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, diagnosed before their 65th birthday. Denise Ayotte of Sandy Springs was in her early 50’s, and had a sales career, three kids and a husband, when she started struggling with serious memory lapses.

Ayotte and her husband Dan Georke talked about her warning signs, her diagnosis, and their life now.

The problems began a few years ago, progressing from typical memory lapses to really terrifying moments.

Denise Ayotte knew Atlanta.

She'd driven these highways for years, as a saleswoman for Xerox, which made what happened to the then 55-year old on a crowded metro-area interstate two years ago so alarming. Ayotte says, “I was on the highway, on I-285, going north. I looked around me and I recognized everything around me. But I had no idea where I was, just no idea."

Desperate, Denise called her husband Dan Georke for help. He remembers, “It was a scary experience for me to know that she was out there, in unfamiliar territory, literally, and not knowing what to do."

This was the tipping point. Denise had been struggling for a couple of years, trying to follow maps, getting lost, misplacing things. She was pulling all-nighters for work, but getting nothing done, because she couldn't focus. Dan says, “That's when the light bulb started going off, there was something very wrong here, because she was not that type of person. She was very focused, and can stay focused, and there was none of that focus there."

Denise and Dan went first to a sleep specialist, then a neurologist. Right away, the doctor suspected much more than insomnia.

But, his diagnosis was stunning. Dan says, "I remember being speechless, when the doctor said, "It's Alzheimer's." I said, "Are you sure? And he conferred with another doctor and said, "We are 99% sure." And, so, it was a very long ride home from that diagnosis.”

Researchers don't know why Alzheimer's affects some people like Denise Ayotte so young, but genetics may play a role.

Emory School of Medicine Professor of Neurology Dr. Krish Sathian says the disease tends to affect a region of the brain called the Hippocampus first. That region helps us form and store new memories, organize, and navigate the world around us. Dr. Sathian says people usually notice the memory loss first, “A person might forget what they had for breakfast in the morning. A person might forget they had an important appointment in the morning, even though she was reminded of it the previous night."

Denise struggles to remember what day it is, even when Dan reminds her. She says, “It was just driving him crazy because I'd say, ‘What's the day of the week? What's the date?’”

Dan created a white board system in their kitchen to remind Denise of what day it is, and what appointments she has that day.

He created another system to keep her from losing important things. She explains, “So, in this box, nothing can be in here but my sunglasses, my car keys, and my phone. And I am still struggling with that.”

Gradually, Dan is becoming Denise’s lifeline, in many ways. She says, “I wouldn't be able to live at home, if I didn't have Dan. Because sometimes I leave the oven on. Sometimes I leave the car in gear, and get out of it. And come in the house."

But Denise and Dan push on. Grateful for the good days, getting through the bad. Dan’s advice to anyone touched by Alzheimer’s? Take a deep breath, and be patient. He says, “Be patient, be patient, and be patient again.”

It’s normal to experience memory slips as we get older, but it can be difficult to tell if you really have a problem you need to get checked out. The Alzheimer’s Association has quick list of ten early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s

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