Alzheimer's 'Buddies'

Cat scan image of human brain, with ALZHEIMER'S lettering, on texture, finished graphic
Peering through a microscope at brain cells from mice with Alzheimer's disease was about the closest scientist Sarah Cole had been to the mind-robbing illness — until she met Jenny Knauss.

Picturing a debilitated shut-in, Cole instead found a vibrant, active Oxford-educated grandmother who has become a cherished friend.

The partnership is thanks to an unusual educational program that pairs researchers and medical students with early-stage Alzheimer's patients, a group growing in numbers whose needs the medical community is just starting to address.

Over nachos and beers with her husband and Cole at a Chicago restaurant, Knauss, 68, said the program has helped keep her stay active and avoid focusing on the downside of Alzheimer's.

Cole, 29, said meeting Knauss has introduced her to the human side of the disease and shown her that the diagnosis doesn't have to stop patients' lives from being fulfilling.

"We don't really worry about what she can't do," Cole said. "We just worry about what she can do."

Increased awareness about Alzheimer's disease has led to earlier diagnoses, and many if not most of the more than 300,000 Americans diagnosed yearly are in the early stages of the disease, according to Kathleen O'Brien of the Alzheimer's Association.

These patients might have difficulty using cell phones, navigating automated telephone menus or making change but can live several years before becoming incapacitated by the mind-robbing illness.