As a young adult, fear meant nothing to Karen Dean.
She became an acrobatic skydiver when the thrill of the skies drew her in. She didn’t tell her parents at the time and went on to become an accomplished skydiver completing more than 3,700 jumps.
Today, fear lives close but still does not overcome her. Because she has Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), she fights every day to stay as independent as possible. She hopes her diagnosis doesn’t turn into dementia. “I’m a little bit worried,” she said.
Mild Cognitive Impairment, which can be a precursor to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, causes a slight but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills. Approximately 15 to 20 percent of people age 65 or older have MCI.
People with MCI, especially MCI involving memory problems, are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias than people without MCI. However, MCI does not always lead to dementia.
Eric VanVlymen, Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley Chapter, said people with MCI are perfect candidates for clinical trials. Many Alzheimer’s or dementia clinical research trials look for participants, before an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis, who might be at risk. “People with MCI should come to us to learn about research and prepare for their possible future,” VanVlymen said. “We can answer any questions they have and help them if they are interested in research opportunities.”
Three out of four of Dean’s grandparents had Alzheimer’s disease. Dean said her father also had the disease. Diagnosed in 2015, Dean said MCI has impacted her short-term memory. “I already call it dementia,” she said. “It reminds me of my grandmother who could not remember things.”
Dean started skydiving around 1972. “If I could pick a time to go back to, it would be my early 20s. …It was so much fun. It is kind of like we were adrenaline junkies,” she said.
She was a member of the Falling Angels, a foursome of women skydivers who participated in air shows. Just as in the past, she continues to push past fear. “I am going to do what I want to do now,” she said. Since her diagnosis, she has lived in Hawaii, moved back to Ohio and she keeps active. She likes to swim, travel and she sings in a women’s Barbershop Chorus, Bella Acapella. “We sing in nursing homes and in the back of my mind I’ve kind of picked which one I would go to if necessary,” Dean said.
Dean has built her life around ways to compensate for her lack of short-term memory. She remembers what bills need to be paid by laying them in a neat line on her floor against the door of her extra room, so she can see the due dates. She sets alarms on her mobile phone to remind her to take care of tasks. She uses her calendar religiously. She posts notes on her mirror and on her phone.
“I don’t really have a caretaker. I am still trying to do things on my own,” she said. “I don’t want to lose all of my self-worth.”
Her advice to others: “Take life by the horns. Try not to be afraid, be cautious but don’t limit life because you are afraid.”