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UMD coach battles Alzheimer's in memory of father-in-law

Just over a decade ago, my father-in-law, Jon Fowler, passed away at the age of 68 after years of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have witnessed this illness affect their loved ones understand fully how cruel and painful it is. I'm grateful I'm in a position to do something about it.

In the six-plus years I have been coaching at the University of Maryland, I have felt blessed in many respects. Working with so many outstanding young men and seeing them not only win basketball games but, more importantly, prepare themselves for successful, fulfilling lives once they leave school is an honor and privilege. Beyond coaching and teaching, though, I'm also fortunate to be in a position to make a difference on a matter that is personally important not only to me and my family, but to millions of Americans.

Just over a decade ago, my father-in-law, Jon Fowler, passed away at the age of 68 after years of suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Those who have witnessed this illness affect their loved ones understand fully how cruel and painful it is. It's not just the physical impact of the disease that is so devastating. It's the anguish of watching someone you have known, loved and respected slipping away.

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Alzheimer’s disease begins years before mental deterioration is detected, a new study suggests. This finding could result in doubling the estimated number of people with the neurodegenerative disease.

My wife, Ann, comes from an outstanding family; her father was a highly intelligent man who possessed Stanford and Harvard Business School degrees. Jon lived life confidently, with a successful career in the furniture business and a great love of travel. At first, it was little incidents that signaled something was not right. He would uncharacteristically forget where he parked his car. He would get his directions mixed up driving home from a trip. His family would find him standing in front of the refrigerator unable to come up with the word to describe what he wanted to eat. Jon was always extremely sharp in dealing with finances, but then uncharacteristic mishaps started occurring with the family's money.

I've learned that Alzheimer's is, among all diseases, one of the slowest in being diagnosed. Physicians are reluctant to share a finding that is essentially a death sentence because this is a disease with no cure. As with so many families, we found it difficult to digest that Jon had become afflicted with Alzheimer's at such a young age. But, even for those who don't want to accept that a loved one has the disease, the disease will inevitably make it impossible not to. As with all who have this illness, his condition worsened and we faced the same kinds of episodes so many families experience — finding Jon, for example, more than a mile away after he had wandered from home.

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San Diego County will spend more than $1 million to create a crisis team set up to quickly respond when Alzheimer's and dementia patients become violent or disruptive.

And the pain of Alzheimer's doesn't go away when the patient passes away. It merely reshapes itself into a constant worry that stays with families because of the potential hereditary nature of the disease. Ann and I are all too well aware that she is susceptible, and we pray that a cure will be found before our children may have to face that same fear. In fact, as we know from hearing the stories of so many friends and acquaintances who are facing these same issues, everyone faces the risk of Alzheimer's. Clearly, we should all be concerned.

As I said, I'm fortunate to be positioned to help in that effort. There is an annual competition among several NCAA basketball coaches, the INFINITI Coaches Charity Challenge, that runs from January into March in which the coach who receives the most online votes (www.infinititimeout.com) will see $100,000 directed toward their chosen cause. I've once again designated the Alzheimer's Association to receive any money I should win, and I'm not going to be shy in saying that I hope all Maryland Terps fans and families will send their votes my way.

To the roughly 400 clinical trials that have tested some experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and come up short, we can now add three more.

When you've been touched by this disease, you take the time to learn more about it. I know that someone in the United States will develop Alzheimer's every 66 seconds, and that this is a situation that is getting worse instead of better. It's a wonderful thing that our country has devoted billions of dollars into research for cancer, heart disease, AIDS/HIV and other serious conditions and have curtailed those disease mortality rates. But even as funding for Alzheimer's research grows, it does not receive that same level of support and, while some drugs are showing promise in clinical trials, a cure isn't yet in sight.

So, I'm devoted to this cause for my wife, my kids and the memory of my beloved father-in-law. I strongly hope others will join in — not for my family, but for their friends and loved ones who will be affected by a disease that has already cost too many lives. I like and respect my fellow NCAA basketball coaches, but I've never wanted to beat them more than I do in this contest.

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Mark Turgeon (Twitter: @CoachTurgeon) is the University of Maryland men's basketball coach.

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