By Michaela Gibson Morris
The fight against Alzheimer’s disease isn’t over for the Sanders family.
It may have taken well-known Tupelo obstetrician Dr. John Sanders from them last September, but they and others will march on in the battle against the disease at the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s on Sept. 28 at Ballard Park in Tupelo in support of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“I hate Alzheimer’s,” said Cindy Sanders, whose husband battled the disease for four years. “I’d like to forget everything about it … but it’s too important.”
Alzheimer’s disease has become the sixth leading cause of death affecting more than five million Americans. The most common of disorders involving dementia, the progressive disease slowly damages the brain cells, leading to memory loss, changes in thinking and behavior. It eventually takes the ability to walk and swallow. New treatments are showing promise in slowing the disease, but there isn’t a cure.
“It’s not a natural part of the aging process,” said Shelli Wood of Golden Living Center in Tupelo who helps organize the walk each year. “It’s a disease.”
Although it’s most common in people over 65, it can and does strike younger adults, like Dr. Sanders, who was diagnosed at 62.
“Dad was so young and healthy,” said Wendy Hutson, Sanders’ daughter, and his story challenges people’s concept of it as a disease of the elderly.
This year, an early onset Alzheimer’s survivor will perform at the opening of the walk, Wood said.
“He’s very uplifting and encouraging,” Wood said of the survivor who has benefited from new treatments that slow the progression of the disease.
The Sept. 28 walk is open to anyone who wants to come out in support of people with Alzheimer’s and their families.
“There’s hardly a family it hasn’t touched,” Wood said.
This will be the first year the Walk to End Alzheimer’s will be held at Ballard Park instead of Veterans Park.
∫“It’s a whole new route, a whole new atmosphere,” Wood said.
Of the money raised through the walk, 85 percent of the money remains with the Mississippi chapter to provide services to families and individuals as well as provide for educational programs. The chapter helps set up support groups for individuals and families dealing with Alzheimer’s.
It operates a 24 hour/7 days a week hotline and a service that allows families to get a photo alert of a wandering Alzheimer’s patient to every sheriff’s department in the state.
The remaining 15 percent goes to the national Alzheimer’s Association and helps fund research that is vitally needed.
There’s too much about the disease that’s unknown, making it difficult to treat effectively, said John Sanders, Dr. Sanders’ son.
“The only way to positively identify Alzheimer’s is autopsy,” John Sanders said. “We’re trying to raise money and awareness. Hopefully, within a generation, we’ll be able to get it cured.”
Right now, even basic research into the biology of the disease is struggling for lack of funding. The Sanders family had to go to great lengths to donate his brain for Alzheimer’s research, eventually finding a program at Harvard University.
“We assumed it would be straightforward,” John Sanders said. But, “We don’t have the funding for that” was the response they got.
Dr. John Sanders had a colorful life. An accomplished musician, he played his way through medical school with his band The Gants. He delivered more than 9,000 babies over the course of his career and was a pillar of the Tupelo medical community.
“He was a brilliant, compassionate man,” said Cindy Sanders. “He was an amazing father, grandfather, husband and physician.”
He retired in August 2008 when it became clear something was wrong.
“It took a year for us to accept that,” Cindy Sanders remembered. “It really bothered him not to be smart.”
For some, Alzheimer’s lingers as long as 20 years, but for Sanders, the disease was aggressive. The last six months were the most difficult.
“The progression was so incredibly steep and downward,” John Sanders said.
Dr. Sanders died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on Sept. 29, the day the 2012 Alzheimer’s Memory Walk was held.
“Last year, he was supposed to be the chairman,” said Cindy Sanders.
The detailed study of his brain at Harvard confirmed Alzheimer’s and showed that he had reached stage 5 of 6 in Alzheimer’s progression.
Because Dr. Sanders had touched so many lives in the community, his battle against Alzheimer’s has also touched many.
“They have brought a lot of awareness to the community,” Wood said.