EASTON — Ann Whaley-Tobin was biking to work in Boston when she passed an event at the Government Center for The Memory Ride — a statewide bike ride that raises money for the Alzheimer’s disease research.
It was a Friday morning in May 2010, and her mother had died of Alzheimer’s nearly three years earlier. She had also just taken up cycling.
“It was, like, meant to be,” she said. “Sign me up.”
A few weeks later, at age 60, she took her first ride with what is now called the Ride to End Alzheimer – New England to raise funds for Alzheimer’s research and resources for families.
“My mother suffered from it for a long time,” she said.
Twelve years later, on June 4, 2022, Whaley-Tobin completed it twelfth consecutive ride at age 72.
It was a cloudy and windy day in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Alongside two other women – Ellen Dirgins and Deb Menz, both in their 50s – Whaley-Tobin covered 62 miles in five hours.
“I felt really good,” she said. “At 72, I did well.”
Whaley-Tobin said it was a perfect day to ride. It was neither too hot nor too cold, although the wind blowing was a bit too cold. The course was more “hilly” than in the past – it was held in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, then in Rye, New Hampshire. It was the first time it was held in Hampton Beach.
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“I’m not good on the hills. I’m very, very slow on the hills,” she said. “I always say ‘I can do it’ as I walk up the hill… It’s not as hard as people going through Alzheimer’s.”
With his crew, “Team Hope,” dressed in matching purple sports jackets and black biker shorts, Whaley-Tobin donned his blue helmet and got on his bike. She made a heart that she attached to her shirt with the names of people who donated and others who battled the disease, to remind her of what keeps her going.
“Even the doctors didn’t know much about it”
Whaley-Tobin and her family knew something was wrong when her mother Connie stopped acting like herself. Parts of his personality began to change. She put her pajamas in the oven to keep them warm (oven off). She was asking strangers to carpool.
“It made sense to my mom,” Whaley-Tobin said.
They took her to the doctor, who told them it was just a symptom of old age.
But they knew there was something more.
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“When my mother was diagnosed, we didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s disease. Even the doctors didn’t know much about it,” she said. “It was almost a relief when she was diagnosed because then we knew there was a reason for it.”
Whaley-Tobin took her mother to a geriatric specialist, who officially diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 80, but had started showing in the late 70s.
His older brother took on the brunt of the responsibility. Their mother lived in Connecticut where Whaley-Tobin and her siblings grew up, while she lived in Canton.
“We knew she was no longer safe on her own,” she said.
Whaley-Tobin’s mother told them she never wanted to leave her home, but needed professional help. They started sending her to a program that cared for her during the day. After a while, once she felt comfortable, she moved into the place permanently.
Eventually, his mental stability really started to deteriorate. She beat others in the establishment with her cane. She had to move to a retirement home.
“It was hard to watch her deteriorate like this,” Whaley-Tobin said.
Whaley-Tobin’s 88-year-old mother died on June 3, 2007. Whaley-Tobin was 57.
Although she was always active and took plenty of spinning classes in her spare time, Whaley-Tobin wasn’t serious about cycling. After her mother passed away, she started riding her bike more regularly until she finally got past the table for The Memory Ride in 2010.
Healthy heart, healthy brain
Alzheimer’s disease, especially early Alzheimer’s disease, is considered a strongly genetic. Whaley-Tobin’s aunt and one of her cousins also died of the disease. Another cousin suffers from dementia – an umbrella term for illnesses that cause significant mental decline.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a child of someone who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (when it develops before age 65) has a 50% chance of inheriting the gene. of the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that about 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, with the risk of the disease doubling every five years starting at age 65. The CDC predicts that cases will nearly triple by 2060.
Although researchers have a solid understanding of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on the brain, it is not yet known how to prevent or treat it. But researchers are “studying many approaches to preventing or delaying Alzheimer’s disease,” some focusing on drugs, others on lifestyle changes, according to the NIH.
Frequent physical activity has many health benefits, not only for the body, but also for the brain, including reduced risk of depression and some studies have shown that “exercise may help delay or slow age-related cognitive decline,” says the NIH, though it cautions that there is not yet enough evidence “to conclude that it can prevent or slow down” Alzheimer’s dementia in particular.
Some good news
Whaley-Tobin has always tried to be active throughout her life, and the possibility of developing the disease is a motivation for her cycling.
“There’s a fear, because Alzheimer’s disease can be hereditary,” Whaley-Tobin said. “I really tried to take care of myself in that regard.”
Four years ago, she started participating in the IADL study at Harvard – a 3-year research project investigating how changes in daily life could indicate early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. With her last session taking place a few weeks ago, researchers determined that Whaley-Tobin showed no early signs of the disease.
Whaley-Tobin began volunteering with The Ride to End Alzheimer’s – New England in 2011 and each year she helps organize the event.
“Maybe there was a sense of guilt,” she said. “It was just my way of giving back.”
Team Hope has raised just under $3,000 as of the race date, nearly meeting its goal of $4,000. Of that amount, Whaley-Tobin raised over $2,000. At the ride site, a large display board listed the names of the ride’s top fundraisers, and his name was on the list.
To date, even after the race, Team Hope has raised $4,157 and Whaley-Tobin has raised $2,600 herself. The event raised a total of $688,785, the largest amount the event has ever raised. Typically, it is between $350,000 and $400,000.
Besides the bike ride, she has given various talks about the disease at the Massachusetts State House to help raise awareness, especially in the medical field.
“Maybe [I’m] find a way so other people don’t have to go through what we went through,” she said.
Fifteen years after Whaley-Tobin lost her mother, we now have a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, and many resources exist to help victims and their families through this difficult disease.
Whaley-Tobin shows no signs of slowing down.
She rides her bike all year round, as the roads are not blocked by snow. She can still go up to 20 mph straight away.
“I just can’t sit still,” she said. “If I need to have an e-bike at 80, I will.”