Gordie Howe’s dementia fight personal and public

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At 83, Mr. Hockey is still in demand and on the move. Gordie Howe is about to embark on another series of fundraisers to support dementia research.

It’s a personal cause. The disease killed his wife, Colleen, in 2009 and is beginning to affect him.

“He’s a little bit worse than last year, but pretty close to about the same,” son Marty said. “He just loses a little bit more, grasping for words.

“The worst part of this disease is there’s nothing you can do about it.”

While the long-term effects of concussions have been very much in the news lately, the family is hesitant to link the Hall of Famer’s condition to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease typically found in autopsies of people who have had multiple head injuries, including more than a dozen former NFL and NHL players.

Concussions weren’t tracked when Howe played, so it is impossible to know how many he sustained. And he didn’t start showing signs of dementia until his late 70s.

“I don’t think anybody can really answer that question,” Marty said of a connection to CTE. “He went for so long without any symptoms whatsoever. You don’t have to be an athlete or in contact sports to get dementia.”

Howe’s dementia is currently mild and his family members haven’t sought a diagnosis of exactly what kind he has. They did that with Colleen, who died at 76 of Pick’s disease. The rare form of dementia is marked by changes in mood, behavior and personality, followed by memory loss similar to that experienced in Alzheimer’s.

Another son, Murray, a radiologist, says his father’s symptoms don’t fit either Alzheimer’s or Pick’s.

“He has what we call mild cognitive impairment,” Murray said. “His brain power is not what it used to be. In terms of the prognosis and diagnosis, it’s still wide open.”

Howe has short-term memory loss, difficulty speaking and some confusion in the evening when the sun goes down. The latter, called “sundowning,” occurs in people with dementia, although the cause is unclear.

“He’s always worse in the evening,” Marty said. “It’s like when the sun goes down, something flips the switch.”

But Howe’s personality hasn’t changed and he continues to recognize his family and friends.

Howe’s stamina and power were legendary during his 33 seasons of pro hockey. Physically, he’s doing well for a man about to turn 84 in March. His sons say Howe likes to do household chores and go fishing, one of his favorite pastimes.

“He’s still Mr. Hockey and that’s what is so great because he’s just such a pleasure to have around,” Murray said. “He’ll wake up first thing in the morning and there’s a bunch of leaves outside and he’ll rake for three hours. He’s so pleasant and upbeat.

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