Just before she turned 65, about 13 years ago, Donna Beveridge began to notice that she was forgetting things and often felt overwhelmed with details that never used to bother her. She made a list of everything she was observing about herself and presented it to her primary care doctor, who referred her to a memory clinic for comprehensive testing followed by an appointment with a neurologist.
“He said, ‘you have probable early stage Alzheimer’s,’” she said, “and to be prepared to be in a nursing home within seven years. And so, that was kind of it.”
At her daughter’s suggestion, Beveridge, who is 78 and lives in Saco, took some watercolor painting classes and loved it so much she began chronicling her Alzheimer’s journey through her paintings. She had art shows and also presented her work at hospitals and in various workshops.
She also joined a support group through the Alzheimer’s Association for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s. Most of the other participants had similar symptoms, but Beveridge also noticed that some people’s symptoms progressed, while hers didn’t. She knew that people respond differently so didn’t think anything of it.
About five years into her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she saw a new neurologist who asked if she’d ever been tested for sleep apnea. She hadn’t. In fact, no one had even mentioned sleep apnea before.
“He sent me for a test,” she said, “and the results were that I had severe sleep apnea. My oxygen levels, which should be above 90, were in the 60s and 70s. Apparently, that was killing off my brain cells.”
When people have sleep apnea, they stop breathing while they are asleep, momentarily cutting off the supply of oxygen to brain cells. When it happens, the brain kicks in and alerts the respiratory system to start breathing again. Even so, there can be serious consequences if you repeatedly stop breathing even for a few seconds. One of them is memory problems.
Her new neurologist recommended that Beveridge wear a continuous positive air pressure — or CPAP — machine when she slept to help open her airways and prevent episodes of sleep apnea. It didn’t miraculously take away all of her cognitive issues, but she felt better almost immediately.
“I had a tremendous amount of fatigue, which goes along with sleep apnea,” she said, “and it was mixing in with the cognitive issues and so, it made it very hard to feel like myself and do my normal things. The CPAP made quite a difference.”
Three years later, Beveridge saw a third neurologist who determined that her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease no longer applied. She still has some cognitive issues, but nothing appears to be getting worse or progressing.
“I’m not as good at organizing things,” she said, “and can get overwhelmed with details. I also have typical kinds of things that older people often have with word retrieval, remembering names, that kind of thing. I have to keep very good notes and write everything down, but it’s not what I was dealing with before.”
Not having Alzheimer’s after all was a great relief, but Beveridge still had some trouble making the transition after believing for so many years that she did.
“I had a hard time when the diagnosis was taken away,” she explained. “I had my identity and I had accepted who I was and what was going to happen with me. But it was good. I’m happy to have my life. Absolutely.”
She hasn’t done any paintings lately, but Beveridge still talks to groups. Her emphasis now is that it’s important to rule out all of the possible causes of dementia or memory problems. Looking back, she’s amazed that sleep apnea wasn’t considered any sooner. She has also developed a new passion — volunteering for an organization called Age Friendly Saco. She coordinates the Handy Neighbors Program, which provides simple services that allow people to stay in their own homes as they age.
She’s busy and she’s happy. She’s also keenly aware of the lessons she learned when she thought she had Alzheimer’s.
“One of the things I think is important is that when I thought I had Alzheimer’s I accepted what my life was,” she said. “Life was much better for me to find that place and then to find what life could still be. I think even when you have the direst of diagnoses, if you can find a place of acceptance and then do what you can with your life, it’s helpful. I’d like to think that whatever may face me at some time, that’s the way I would face it again.”