OKLAHOMA CITY - When you think of Alzheimer's disease, you probably think of it striking later in life.
All too often though, it hits younger people who are still in their prime.
When that happens, it is devastating. Not just for the person diagnosed, but also for their family who is left to take care of them.
John Spivey knows the agony of watching a loved one battle the disease. His sister, Mary Bean, was in the prime of her life at just 50-years-old when she was told she had Alzheimer's.
She was a vivacious, loving mom of two boys, a sister, a friend, and the cool aunt to her many nieces and nephews.
Her brother says, gradually, she began to change.
"For us, it was initially subtle changes. Her beautiful smile, her infectious laughter, and her kookiness, slowly disappeared," said Spivey.
Then one day, a troubling phone call from Mary to her sister, Patty.
She was lost on a route she should have known well.
Spivey was perplexed, "A drive she'd made half of her life, and she said, 'um, I don't know where I am.' And Patty said, 'Mary, how can you not know where you are?"
Then Mary stopped loving the things she had always enjoyed.
"She became very unhappy at her job, which was weird because she loved her job. What we didn't know at the time, was that she was losing the ability to perform her tasks at work."
John says the family was at a loss. They could not understand what was happening to her. They took Mary to countless doctors, and many tests were performed.
John says doctors were reluctant to consider Alzheimer's.
"Two things were going against us from the get-go. One, there is no history of this in our family, and two, her age. And every doctor we went to said, 'well it can't be Alzheimer's, she's too young,'" said John.
Two years went by before, finally, a diagnosis. A scan of Mary's brain confirmed she had early onset Alzheimer's.
In 2006, when Mary was diagnosed, Spivey says early onset of the disease was just a blip on the doctor's radar... something that was not fully understood. He says now it's on its way to becoming an epidemic, especially with millions of aging baby-boomers.
Now, at age 59, Mary is in the late stages of decline.
Spivey says the process of mental decline can take much longer in younger Alzheimer's patients. Her family had a difficult time deciding whether or not to show us what Mary looks like now. But he says he wants everyone to see just how cruel it can be once it takes hold.
Spivey says watching his sister suffer is agonizing.
"Physically, she's there, but she's not. You know, it's hard to go see someone that you really can't communicate with," he said.
Spivey says one of the main points he wants to get across is the toll the disease is taking on the health care system. Patients like his sister need around the clock care for the duration of their illness.
He says, as a nation, we must get a handle on Alzheimer's now.
"It's going to break the system", Spivey says the statistics are staggering. "Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States today. It's the most expensive disease to treat today, and its the only disease that cannot be prevented, cured, or slowed down in any way."