Doreen Watson-Beard relaxes in her kitchen at her home on March 15 in Leesburg, Fla. Watson-Beard, 49, is one of the millions of Americans living with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
LEESBURG, Fla. — Doreen Watson-Beard cared for more people with dementia than she could count. The nurse was so moved by her patients that she led Alzheimer’s support groups. She knew the warning signs and understood there was no cure.
But the 49-year-old never thought the disease would affect someone her age.
Clues surfaced around five years ago, when she was 44. She’d forget to pick up her grandchildren at school or plans she made with her husband.
About 200,000 Americans under 65 are among the 5.4 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Experts’ estimates suggest there’s a similar number of younger people with other types of dementia, meaning about a half-million Americans, some as young as their 30s, suffer from early-onset or younger-onset dementia.
Diagnosed two or three years ago, forgetfulness was one of her first symptoms; her husband would ask if she was ready to leave and she’d have no recollection they made plans.
She kept going to work at an assisted living facility near her central Florida home, while caring for her husband, who had liver cancer. When her husband died three years ago, the symptoms continued. She thought it was grief. But it wasn’t getting better.
Problems at work began cropping up, too. Once, Watson-Beard couldn’t figure out how to do a complicated wound dressing — something she’d done many times before. Another time, she wrote down the wrong dosage of a medication on a patient’s discharge plan — luckily, that mistake was caught by a pharmacist.
Worried someone might be harmed, she went to the doctor.
Dr. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health Systems and author of “How We Age,” says symptoms of dementia in a younger patient can be glaring. But diagnosis is often complicated by the fact that it’s so uncommon in younger patients and that so many other conditions could cause the symptoms.
Agronin sees no evidence of an increasing rate of early-onset dementia, but there is increased interest. At the memory clinic he runs, he has seen an uptick in younger patients concerned their memory lapses mean they have Alzheimer’s. They’re almost always wrong. When they’re not, the diagnosis can be devastating.
“It’s very distressing because they come in and they have young spouses and some of them have kids in grade school,” Agronin said. “It’s frightening to see someone so young becoming so impaired.”
Beth Kallmyer, a social worker at the Alzheimer’s Association, said younger people with dementia often get incredulous reactions from others when they share their diagnosis. Many don’t realize the disease can affect those who aren’t very old.
Kallmyer notes it also frequently forces people to quit their job during their top earning years. “It can be financially devastating,” she said.
Watson-Beard’s house is in foreclosure and she has no medical insurance. She pays out of pocket for doctor’s visits and gets her supply of Namenda, which treats dementia symptoms, free from the drug company.
A few light wrinkles around her eyes are the only main signs of age. She occasionally glances to the left in silence, unable to find an answer in her memory, but she speaks with lucidity most of the time in an interview. But not all days are so good.
Once recently, she came out of her grandchildren’s school and went into another unlocked car. It wasn’t until the key didn’t fit that she realized it wasn’t hers.