Most of us think of Alzheimer's as an older people's disease, but the condition has been known to affect people much younger in life.
Ex-serviceman Chris Graham knows this too well. He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010 at just 34.
Tragically, he discovered that he carries the same faulty gene that claimed the lives of his father, aunt, cousin and granddad, all in their forties. This rare, inherited, or “familial” form of Alzheimer’s disease has also left his 43-year-old brother, Tony, bed bound in a care home being fed through a tube.
“My family has been hit hard by Alzheimer’s," he said. "Dad died aged 42. He was in hospital so long I don’t really remember him, I was only six or seven at the time...
“I’m one of four kids, and we all had a 50/50 chance of inheriting the gene from Dad. My two sisters avoided it, and my brother Tony and I got it. Tony is 43 now, having been diagnosed in 2006. He’s in an old folk’s home, he can’t move and has to be fed through a tube. He can’t speak but can raise a smile sometimes.”
But rather than allow himself to get downtrodden by the condition, Graham is on a mission to change people's perceptions of dementia - and raise funds for Alzheimer's Research UK in the process.
Chris, who was medically discharged from the Army in January after 23 years’ service, said: “My friends didn’t believe me when I told them I had Alzheimer’s disease. At the age of 39, it just doesn’t make sense to people: I’m fighting fit – how can I have something like that? We still think of Alzheimer’s as a bit of forgetfulness as we get older. The truth is far worse."
He is taking part in a 16,000 mile cycle ride around Canada and America in April. His year-long challenge has earned the support of Prime Minister David Cameron, who praised Chris’ “extraordinary grit and determination”.
Chris carries a faulty version of PSEN-1 gene, which affects around 400 families worldwide. He is taking part in research studies at University College London’s Institute of Neurology to help scientists understand the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s to boost the search for new treatments. The father-of-three, from Carterton in Oxfordshire, is experiencing mild memory problems, but knows it is a case of when, not if, his dementia progresses.
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The father-of-three is sharing his story in the same week a YouGov survey commissioned by Alzheimer’s Research UK revealed that, when asked what they think dementia is and who it affects, just 23% of British adults specifically mentioned brain disease or degeneration, despite a previous survey from the charity showing more than one in three people know a close friend or family member with the condition.
Although Chris is young, the disease process will affect him in the same way as the estimated 500,000 people with Alzheimer’s in the UK. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is responsible for killing brain cells and shrinking the brain 400% faster than the normal rate of ageing.
“Although I know what will happen to me in the coming years, I now have direction in life," he said. "I wanted to do something to fight back against the disease – to do as much as I can while I can. It’s simple for me, you have to hit the enemy directly, so I’ve taken on a challenge to help support research and I’m taking part in studies.”
Hilary Evans, Director at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said: “Chris embodies everything that goes against the dementia stereotype – he’s young and fit and his zest for life in the face of adversity is truly inspiring. Although Chris’ form of Alzheimer’s is rare, the tragic consequences it has had on his relatives will resonate with thousands of families across the UK who have experienced Alzheimer’s.
"Chris’ situation shows how profound the impact of Alzheimer’s can be – this is not forgetfulness in old age, the disease is a destructive process that takes the ultimate toll."
To find out more about Chris, his challenge, his family’s story and about inherited Alzheimer’s disease, visit www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/chris
To sponsor Chris, visit www.justgiving.com/Christopher-Graham8 or text CHRIS to 70800 to donate £5 to Alzheimer’s Research UK.